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Year-end deal 'impossible'

NAFTA negotiators appear to have adopted the lament of Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get."

Battalions of negotiators for Canada, Mexico and the United States have been working at a breakneck pace trying to reach agreement on a revamped North American free trade pact by the end of the year but so far they have little to show for it.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer seemed to concede as much earlier this week when he offered an assessment of the progress thus far that could have come straight out of "Alice in Wonderland":

"Yeah, well, we're moving at warp speed but we don't know whether we're going to get to a conclusion, that's the problem," he told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We're running very quickly somewhere."

Canadian government officials insist the talks are going well. But trade experts and stakeholders who've been following the negotiations closely say they've seen no progress on any of the thorny issues and no discernable headway, even on the simple things where all three countries should be in agreement.

If there's no significant progress during the third round of negotiations, starting Saturday in Ottawa, they say there's no chance a deal can be struck by year's end.

And if there is no deal early in the new year, some experts predict U.S. President Donald Trump will follow through on his threat to pull the plug on NAFTA rather than go empty-handed into primaries for mid-term congressional elections.

Ohio-based trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said he's been surprised that all the supposedly "low-hanging fruit" — issues that weren't considered controversial, like bringing the pre-internet NAFTA into the digital age — is still hanging.

"If we don't see something like the digital chapter ... some very strong, completed text on that emerge by the end of this third round, I'd say that's a very strong signal that we're not going to get this done."

Ottawa-based international trade strategist Peter Clark, who was involved in the original NAFTA and Canada-U.S. free trade negotiations, said he expects to see "some visible progress" out of the Ottawa round.

"I think there has to be because you can't keep on going and not doing anything. You have to have enough progress to keep Trump from pulling the trigger," said Clark.



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