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Chrystia Freeland plays her NAFTA hand

Paul Wells on how the minister unveiled her NAFTA wish list with some Trumpian language and the vagueness of a career communicator
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland discusses modernizing NAFTA at public forum at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland discusses modernizing NAFTA at public forum at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland discusses modernizing NAFTA at public forum at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“When I use a word,” Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Chrystia Freeland has similar goals when she talks. By the time she met reporters in the House of Commons foyer on Monday the foreign minister was speaking about NAFTA for the third time in half a day. She knew what she wanted to say, and she would say neither more nor less.

The Americans want to re-open the trade deal’s dispute-settlement mechanism, one reporter said. “Is it a line in the sand?”

“I spoke in my remarks today, both at committee”—that’s the Commons committee on trade, whose unusual mid-summer meeting she’d just left—“and at the University of Ottawa, about the importance for Canada in having mechanisms to ensure that any anti-dumping and countervailing duties are levied only when appropriate and are fair,” Freeland said. “That has been a historic objective of Canada’s.

“I spoke about the great work of the late, great Simon Reisman in securing such a mechanism, and Canada absolutely stands very firm in the importance of having such a mechanism.”

READ MORE: NAFTA emerges as Trudeau’s biggest, unexpected test

This was not quite the same as not answering the question at all. Lines in sand had vanished, buried under a billowing dune of the minister’s own lines. But a sense of dispute settlement’s rank in Freeland’s hierarchy of priorities remained, dimply glimpsed behind the verbiage: Keeping an impartial mechanism for settling disputes was a “historic objective” that had provoked Simon Reisman to walk out of an early generation’s trade talks. Canada “absolutely stands very firm” on all this.

Was she saying she’ll have negotiators walk out of NAFTA talks over the same issue? Reuters had already decided, on the strength of her remarks at the University of Ottawa earlier in the day, that she was saying precisely that.  [UPDATE: Reuters’ excellent reporter David Ljunggren says I read too much certainty into a more carefully nuanced article, and he’s got a point. -pw] But nobody can quote any sentence in which she made such a threat, because she was careful to pronounce no such sentence.

Sure, she was at pains to honour the ghost of Reisman, whose threat to let free-trade talks in the 1980s collapse was the key, in trade mythology, to getting the deal Canada wanted. She reminded everyone that as recently as last year she had staged her own walk-out at trade talks with the European Union. There will be “moments of drama,” she said. Nobody should expect Canada to be a pushover. “It is no accident that hockey is our national sport.”

But did she connect the dots among those hints? Nope! Would she connect them when invited to do so by reporters? Nope!

RELATED: How Canada hopes to one-up the White House on NAFTA

It was that kind of morning. She defended supply management in Canadian agriculture at every turn. When a reporter asked whether Canada would consent to a modest increase in U.S. market access, along the lines of concessions Canada made in trade negotiations with the European Union, she repeated the same generic defence of supply management. The question, in an important way, hadn’t been about that. When reporters tried to get her to reply more directly to the question, she stuck just as hard as she could to the original not-quite-apposite answer.

“Okay, let me just—hang on, hang on,” she said over objections. “Let me just say that in English.” (Her first not-quite-an-answer had been in French.) “Guys, guys, guys. Okay, I’m going to answer in English. Thank you.” And then she played back her original not-quite-an-answer, in the other official language, taking care to come no closer to answering the question.

You can always tell when a career communicator is making a point of not being too clear.

None of this should come as too much of a surprise. On Wednesday in Washington, negotiations to renew NAFTA will begin. Donald Trump’s vague threat to abrogate the treaty if he doesn’t like the way negotiations are going will hang over the proceedings like a stinky cloud. The American demands are known. The Trudeau government hadn’t said much in response. Now Freeland was saying more—but only as much more as she wanted to say.

READ MORE: Chrystia Freeland’s vision for a new NAFTA

What does Canada want? First, “to modernize NAFTA,” the minister said. Second, to make it “more progressive.” That’s super-vague, but she offered a little more specificity. Labour safeguards and environmental provisions need to be brought into the agreement, as should “a new chapter on gender rights,” “an Indigenous chapter” and changes to the investor-state dispute settlement process.

Now, at first blush this sounds like a long list of things Trump will never agree to. But Trump—whose very name was spectacularly absent from the text of Freeland’s prepared remarks at the University of Ottawa, giving this whole high-stakes trade round some of the aura of a virgin birth—is an odd duck. Depending on the day, for all anyone knows, it may be possible to get him to agree that the moon is made of cream cheese.

Freeland used Trumpian language to burnish the appeal of part of her wish list. The environment and labour stuff “are how we guarantee that the modernized NAFTA will not only be an exemplary free trade deal, it will also be a fair trade deal,” she said. Canadians’ commitment to free trade “wavers… when trade agreements put our workers at an unfair disadvantage because of the high standards that we rightly demand.” Was it too much of a stretch to imagine Trump watching a clip of those remarks on Fox and Friends and tweeting out his support for Freeland’s argument? OK, it’s a stretch, but is it too much of a stretch?

Some other elements on Freeland’s list—red tape reduction, procurement, services—will ensure that business Republicans, and the business Liberals at the Business Council of Canada, can muster some enthusiasm for the process.

Will the Trump trade team buy it all? Almost certainly not. Will they buy some of it? Probably, and I’d wager more than you might expect. Will Trump accept it as a win? Freeland pronounced herself “deeply optimistic,” and it didn’t sound like mere bluster. The president has made it clear he wants victories and is unimpressed by fine print when he is even aware there is any. He seems a prime sucker for a con. The minister would want me to emphasize that that’s my language, not hers.