WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump told the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Wednesday (April 26) that he will not terminate the Nafta trade treaty but will renegotiate it with them, a White House statement said.
The announcement came as White House officials disclosed that Trump and his White House advisers were considering issuing an executive order to withdraw the United States from the trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
The White House said Trump spoke by telephone with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and that he would hold back from a speedy termination of Nafta, in what was described as a “pleasant and productive”conversation.
“President Trump agreed not to terminate Nafta at this time and the leaders agreed to proceed swiftly, according to their required internal procedures, to enable the renegotiation of the Nafta deal to the benefit of all three countries,” a White House statement said.
“It is my privilege to bring Nafta up to date through renegotiation. It is an honour to deal with both President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau, and I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better,” Trump was quoted as saying in the statement.
The White House has been considering an executive order as early as Trump’s 100th day in office on Saturday, but there was a split among his top advisers over whether to take the step.
Such an order could unravel one of the world’s biggest trading blocs. News of the potential presidential action drove the Mexican and Canadian currencies lower.
Trump had threatened to renegotiate the Nafta pact during the election campaign as he said it had destroyed American jobs, although he has backed off tough action in trade since taking office in January.
“There is some discussion,” said another source with direct knowledge of the discussions. “There are some who are pushing for things sooner rather than later but that’s the same on every issue.”
A disruption in trade between the three Nafta partners could wreak havoc in the auto sector and other industries, hitting profits at companies that have benefited from zero-level tariffs and Mexico’s relatively low labor costs. It would also hit US agricultural exports hard.
“To totally abandon that agreement means that those gains are lost,” said Paul Ferley, an economist at Royal Bank of Canada.
Trump has repeatedly vowed to pull out from the 23-year-old trade pact if he is unable to renegotiate it with better terms for America. He has long accused Mexico of destroying US jobs. The United States went from running a small trade surplus with Mexico in the early 1990s to a US$63 billion (S$88 billion) deficit in 2016.
Trump has stopped short of a formal threat to kill Nafta so far, but legal experts say he likely has the authority as president to give a 60-day notice that America is exiting the pact. It was under an executive order signed by Trump on Jan 23 that the United States pulled out of the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
Details about the draft order on Nafta were not immediately available.
Trump has faced some setbacks since he took office in January, including a move by courts to block parts of his orders to limit immigration.
Withdrawing from Nafta would enable him to say he delivered on one of his key campaign promises, but it could also hurt him in states that voted for him in the election.
“Mr President, America’s corn farmers helped elect you,” the National Corn Growers Association said in a statement.“Withdrawing from Nafta would be disastrous for American agriculture.”
The first administration source told Reuters that there were diverging opinions within the US government about how to proceed and it was possible that Trump could sign the executive order before the 100-day mark of his presidency.
The source noted that the administration wanted to tread carefully.
“There is talk about what steps we can take to start the process of renegotiating or withdrawing from Nafta,” this source said.
Mexico had expected to start renegotiations in August but the possible executive order could add urgency to the timeline.
The Mexican government had no comment on the draft order. The country’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that Mexico would walk away from the negotiating table rather than accept a bad deal.
Trump recently ramped up his criticism of Canada and this week ordered 20 per cent tariffs on imports of Canadian softwood lumber, setting a tense tone as the three countries prepared to renegotiate the pact.
Canada said it was ready to come to talks on renewing Nafta at any time.
“At this moment Nafta negotiations have not started. Canada is ready to come to the table at any time,” said Alex Lawrence, a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland