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Harper gloomy on NAFTA

Stephen Harper broke his public silence on current events by offering a gloomy assessment on the state of international trade, describing anti-trade sentiment in the U.S. as a long-term problem that predates the Trump administration, that lacks an easy fix, and could well result in the end of NAFTA.

Harper stepped into the role of political analyst during a panel discussion in Washington with a coincidence of timing that bordered on the surreal Wednesday. At the very same moment, Harper's successor, Justin Trudeau, happened to be a few blocks away at the White House, discussing the North American Free Trade Agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump himself.

Powerful anti-trade forces that extend beyond Trump's presidency are at play in American society and aren't going away any time soon, said the former Conservative leader, who's an ardent free trader.

Harper illustrated that with a story about being told by the Bush administration when he took office in 2006 that NAFTA would never have won a vote in the U.S. Congress at that time. He then described how Barack Obama campaigned against the deal. Now he says trade will remain controversial, whether or not Trump cancels NAFTA.

He said he is advising companies to start planning for the possibility of life without NAFTA.

"I believe that it is conceivable. I believe Donald Trump would be willing to take the economic and political risk of that under certain circumstances," Harper said in a panel at the Dentons law firm.

"I would not want to simply bet that this is just all going to work out. What's driving this are some very powerful political currents that, frankly, nobody — including Mr. Trump — has really figured out how to address, and they're going to keep coming at us."

Trudeau, for his part, sounded Wednesday like he was fearing a similar conclusion: "We are ready for anything and we will continue to work diligently," the current prime minister told reporters, after meeting Trump.

Harper said he doesn't believe a simple fix to NAFTA, with a few tweaks, will satisfy Trump. He called the president unpredictable, but said one thing is predictable — the political need for Trump to point to significant changes, given that he's repeatedly blasted NAFTA as a horrific deal: "I just don't know how you get from here to there," Harper said.



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