Mexico in, Canada still waiting, for a seat at Pacific region trade talks

At the G20 in Mexico, Canada waits for word on the TPP

It can’t be a good moment for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to have the U.S. welcoming Mexico into the free trade talks called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, given that the Canadian government has been pleading for a seat at that particular negotiating table.

News that Mexico, but not necessarily Canada, would be admitted to the TPP process during the G20 summit on Mexican soil at Los Cabos this week was broken last week by a specialized Washington online trade newsletter. Asked about that report last week, International Trade Minister Ed Fast’s press secretary, Rudy Husny, declined to “comment on speculation.”

However, Husny touted Fast’s handling of the file. “The Minister of International Trade has met with counterparts from all nine TPP countries, and all have welcomed Canada’s interest,” he said in an email response to Maclean’s questions. “And earlier this week [June 12], Tom Donahue, President of the United States Chamber of Commerce, stated that his membership ‘strongly favors Canada joining the negotiations.’”

Despite all that, Fast is reportedly no longer heading up the TPP push, a task that Harper has reassigned, according to this story in the Globe and Mail, to his own chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Since Harper has made pursuing free trade deals a central pillar of his economic policy, this has to be viewed a a major tactical challenge. There’s still a possibility Canada will be joining the TPP group later this week.

The TPP talks already include the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and now Mexico. Industry insiders say Canada is under pressure to bend on a few key policy areas—perhaps strengthening intellectual property rules and relaxing protection for supply-managed farm sectors like the dairy industry—to gain entry to the TPP club.

Last week, when speculation that Mexico was about to be allowed to join the TPP bargaining was heating up, some Canadian business lobbyists tried to gain assurances from the federal government that Canada wasn’t being left behind. Jean-Michel Laurin of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said federal officials seemed upbeat about Canada’s chances.

But if the TPP process remains shut to Canada much longer, then the stakes will rise even higher in the last stages of negotiations of toward a trade deal with the European Union the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, which is expected to be finalized later this year.