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January 26, 2018 12:45 PM, EST

Mayors, Ambassadors Urge NAFTA Preservation as Talks Press On

Mayor James Hovlan of Edina, Minn. Mayor James Hovland of Edina, Minn. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

WASHINGTON—Mayors and ambassadors expressed an earnest desire to modernize — and not abandon — the North American Free Trade Agreement during a meeting here, citing the pact as a vital source of jobs and commerce.

David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, conceded that NAFTA has flaws, but said that breaking the pact would have grave consequences for all three countries. MacNaughton spoke at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting Jan. 26, which took place as representatives from the United States, Canada and Mexico met in Montreal for the sixth of seven scheduled NAFTA talks.

According to MacNaughton, the United States exports more goods to Canada than China, Japan and Great Britain combined.

“If I had a customer that was that big, I’d kind of try to take care of them a little bit,” MacNaughton said during a panel discussion. “I think it is very much in our interest to make sure, before the end of March, we come to a resolution which gives the communities that you represent the confidence that they can invest and grow the economy and create jobs. That’s what our common goal is.”

President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested he may withdraw the United States from NAFTA, stating that the pact harms American manufacturing.

Mayor Don Iveson of Edmonton, Alberta. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

Considering that NAFTA took effect in 1994, Mexico’s Ambassador to the United States, Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández, acknowledged that the agreement could be updated. In particular, he said some parameters could be adjusted to account for e-commerce and the modernizations Mexico has made to its energy sector.

“Everybody agrees that NAFTA needs to be updated, improved, but certainly not discarded,” Fernández said. “Over the last 25 years, NAFTA has become the backbone of the overall North American relationship. Whatever happens with NAFTA is going to set the tone beyond economic consequences of the entire North America relation.”

Fernández also predicted that labor and environmental standards will have “a little bit more teeth” after the negotiations finish.

Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said that progress on a renegotiated NAFTA has been slow, and emphasized the importance of momentum. He noted that two months passed between the last round of negotiations and the most recent one.

“NAFTA is a fundamental part of the U.S. economy,” Marczak said. “Without NAFTA, we all lose. We lose economy [and] we lose strategy.”

David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the United States. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

According to Marczak, 33 states consider Mexico one of their top export markets. He said 215,000 jobs in California alone depend on NAFTA.

Several mayors at the meeting touted NAFTA’s importance to their communities. Don Iveson, mayor of Edmonton, Alberta, said that Canada’s NAFTA participation in the form of trading car parts and energy services contributes to the 9 million NAFTA jobs across North America.

James Hovland, mayor of Edina, Minn., said his city has a long-standing friendship with Canada and values its business. Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, specializes in the trade of wood and manufacturing products.

Canada is Edina’s biggest trading partner, and Hovland said continuing their commercial relationship is vitally important. He said that Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from the pact have him concerned about NAFTA’s future, and acknowledged that while it may need tweaking, there is more than business wrapped up in seeing it live on.

“I’m concerned about the preservation of NAFTA. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Hovland told Transport Topics. “We consider Canada more like family than a foreign country. We’re like a big neighborhood. We’ve established bonds that are first based on friendship, and then based on business.”