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U.S. has 'very ambitious' NAFTA plans: U.S. chief negotiator

OTTAWA _ The man heading up the U.S. negotiating team for the new North American Free Trade Agreement said Monday he sees no issue with the pace of the talks, now in their third round this week in Ottawa.

“We’ve been working very hard,” John Melle, the U.S. chief negotiator said. “I don’t see a problem.”

But the fact that the U.S. has not yet laid all its cards on the table has prompted many trade experts and stakeholders to predict there is no way the three countries can strike a deal by the end of the year.

The Americans want to secure a deal before NAFTA can become a political football in the lead up to the U.S. congressional mid-term elections next fall, as well as the Mexican election next summer.

Melle suggested there is no issue with the pace.

“We’re moving across the boards _ very ambitious,” Melle told reporters, before rejecting the suggestion that things are moving too slowly for them to be serious.

“We’re working, as my boss said, at ‘warp speed,”’ said Melle, quoting U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “I think that’s accurate.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed on the pace Monday as well, and said Canada respects the process.

“But Canada is always there, has done its homework, we have concrete proposals on the table and we’re very pleased to have a chance to discuss them with our counterparts from the other countries,” he said at an event in Toronto.

On Sunday, Canada’s chief negotiator had said he did not expect to see any details from the U.S. on its desire to end the supply management system for dairy and poultry during the third round of talks underway now in Ottawa.

Steve Verheul also said he did not expect the U.S., which triggered the renegotiation of the continental trade pact, to table detailed proposals during this round on two other hot topics _ investor state dispute settlement process and American content requirements for vehicles.

Earlier Monday, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay had sought to reassure the dairy sector by saying Canada will protect supply management as it modernizes NAFTA.

MacAulay met representatives from the agricultural industry _ including wine, dairy, pork and beef _ during the third round of talks with the U.S. and Mexico to replace the 23-year-old trade deal.

The minister said his defence of the system that protects Canadian dairy, eggs and poultry does not mean there is nothing about the trade deal that needs changing.

“The U.S. realizes we are their friends, but there’s things to iron out and hopefully it will iron out in a very positive way and even make the deal better.”

The dairy sector was excluded from the original NAFTA deal in 1994, but the supply management system, which limits the amount of dairy that can be imported into Canada without high tariffs, has long been a point of contention.