CEOs Offer Trump NAFTA Wish List as Tense Negotiations Loom

CEOs have offered Donald Trump more than a dozen recommendations ahead of his administration’s landmark trade negotiations with Canada and Mexico, in a clear sign that business is hopeful he will keep goods flowing between America and its second- and third-largest trading partners.

Trump yesterday triggered the 90-day notice period the administration must give Congress to start renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The president consistently slammed the 24-year-old pact on the campaign trail, claiming it had put Americans out of work, prompting fears from trade advocates that he could scrap it completely.

Last month, Trump said that he won’t target an immediate withdrawal from NAFTA but wouldn’t rule out the possibility should talks sour with counterparts in Canada and Mexico.

The CEO lobby group Business Roundtable, has written a letter to the president to “express support” for his decision to commence negotiations. “We understand the importance of updating this two-decade-old trade agreement to further benefit the U.S. economy and American businesses, workers and consumers,” said the letter, signed by Tom Linebarger, chair of the group’s international engagement committee. He also is CEO of Cummins Inc.

“Since the signing of NAFTA, we have seen our manufacturing industry decimated, factories shuttered, and countless workers left jobless. President Trump is going to change that.”

Far from backing the president’s protectionist rhetoric, the letter goes on to to urge him to “recognize and expand the many benefits” that NAFTA has created for the U.S., including the creation of more than 12 million American jobs. “High-standard and modern trade agreements are critical tools to help American companies and workers access international markets for their U.S.-produced goods and services,” Linebarger said.

To be sure, the letter also acknowledges that the U.S. should strongly enforce its trade laws to combat unfair practices, such as product dumping. Among the 13 priorities Business Roundtable urged the president to consider, was a need to “ensure fair competition with state-owned and controlled enterprises.” The letter also calls for stronger intellectual property protection and a greater ability for U.S. small and medium-sized businesses to enter the Canadian and Mexican markets.

There are no calls, however, for increased trade tariffs often touted by Trump or complaints about currency values. And most of the other recommendations point to the encouragement of even more trade. For example, the letter also urges the president to “eliminate remaining barriers to trade in goods and services and investment and build on NAFTA rules and commitments to ensure coverage of new types of services.”

There also are calls to incorporate regulatory reforms adopted in Mexico and Canada since NAFTA was adopted in 1993, promote e-commerce and digital trade, promote co-operation on infrastructure projects and incorporate stronger labor and environmental protections into the agreement.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, meanwhile, indicated that negotiations will be tough. “Since the signing of NAFTA, we have seen our manufacturing industry decimated, factories shuttered, and countless workers left jobless. President Trump is going to change that,” he said in a statement.

Mexican and Canadian officials both indicated their readiness to negotiate, but the similarities with Ross’s statement ended there. “This trilateral agreement has been an immense benefit for all parties,” Mexico’s economic ministry said in a statement. “Mexico reaffirms its willingness to update NAFTA.”

Canada was firm in its support, as well. “NAFTA’s track record is one of economic growth and middle-class job creation,” foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland said.

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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