The NAFTA talks kicked off this past week in Washington DC, with negotiators from the three countries outlining their visions for improving trilateral trade.
While the mood appeared to be generally constructive, tensions surfaced as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer repeated the Trump administration’s focus on reducing trade deficits. The negotiators will sit down next in Mexico City on September 1st to continue hashing out the details on this point and others, but even if they can successfully produce a NAFTA 2.0 by early next year they may still face the biggest challenge of all. As I wrote about for Texas Monthly, the toughest part of redesigning NAFTA may not be determining the agreement’s content but managing the political risk both during and after the process.
With the 23-year old NAFTA in a vulnerable position, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering what is at stake. While far from perfect, the trade agreement guides the cross-border exchange of billions of dollars in agricultural products, motor vehicles, and appliances. It underpins millions of jobs from California to Kansas to Maine, and is the framework for entire industries’ business models. If NAFTA suddenly disappears, it would be impossible for the three region’s economies to exit unscathed. The disruptions that come from businesses’ reshuffling their operations and absorbing higher costs would cause some to shut down and others to pass along the costs to consumers through higher prices. There are ways to gradually adjust the agreement to make it work better for all parties, but this requires using proverbial scalpels to adjust, finesse, and stabilize the agreement, rather than a hammer to smash the parts that aren’t working quite right.
Yet in Mexico, the NAFTA talks are only one of the big news stories, as the country is already beginning its 2018 presidential and congressional election preparations. While the campaigns don’t kick off until next year, Mexico’s National Electoral Institute and Congress have allocated funding for political parties (unlike the United States, Mexico uses public funds for campaign financing), capping off campaign financing at the highest levels ever. There is a general sense that Ándres Manuel López Obrador is the frontrunner, but the jockeying among presidential hopefuls in the PRI and PAN parties is just beginning. For those reading the political tea leaves, changes in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI will now allow individuals from outside the party to become a presidential candidate, in a move that would appear to favor the current Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade. But with just under a year to go and a deep bench of contenders, there surely will be many twists and turns to come.
For those of you in South Texas or interested in local border issues, it’s worth tuning in to two upcoming construction projects. The first project is for a section of border wall that will cut straight through cross-border Santa Ana Wildlife Reserve and the second are LNG export terminals set to be constructed in the Port of Brownsville. These projects raise significant economic and environmental issues, and unfortunately—as I write about here—local residents’ voices and concerns have so far been given short shrift.