NAFTA: 'Progress is slow'

The latest round of NAFTA talks has begun without any substantive negotiating on key sticking points in a low-key meeting contrasting markedly with the previous round filled with bombshell demands and public scoldings.

Sources said it was unlikely any major counter-demands would be tabled as negotiating teams began meeting on Saturday in key topic areas that figured in the acrimony of the previous round.

Agriculture and rules-of-origin groups began four days of talks but people familiar with the negotiations downplayed the likelihood that Canada would offer a response to American requests on dairy and auto parts at this round.

At the outset of a round projected to be a status-quo affair on the most contentious files, there was a similar lack of movement on Buy American rules, as attempts to get the U.S. to budge yielded nothing.

Canadian officials said they do expect progress on a number of less-controversial files, to get those completed before the harder issues get tackled in future rounds. The three countries are scheduled to continue talking through at least March, after extending their timeframe.

''Progress is slow,'' one official said.

''There are no fireworks in the room.''

Which is not a bad thing, according to those same officials.

They said there's clearly a desire to lower the political temperature after lead ministers Chrystia Freeland, Robert Lighthizer and Ildefonso Guajardo practically debated on stage at the closing news conference of the previous round. The politicians have skipped this round, the professional negotiators are working on their own, and the timeframe for completing talks has been extended from an end-of-year target into next spring.

There were small hints of potential compromise.

Canada and Mexico expressed a willingness to discuss the U.S. demand for a review of NAFTA every five years. They insisted, however, that it not include a clause that would automatically cancel NAFTA unless everyone agrees to renew it.

A newly published list of U.S. negotiating objectives hints at the potential for a less-aggressive American posture on that front: It avoids tough talk of termination, and echoes the Canadian and Mexican language on creating some kind of review process.

But the list of broad U.S. priorities includes strong language on auto parts, and dairy.

Canada and Mexico have also said they're willing to discuss auto changes, and updating the enforcement mechanisms — but not along the lines the U.S. has asked, and not in any substantive detail at this round.

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