There have been many theories put forward about why Donald Trump is the way he is. It has been suggested that he is afflicted, variously, by dementia, narcissism, psychopathy, and neurosyphilis. Others say he is the opportunistic and greedy puppet of Russia, or of people with even greater wealth than he possesses. Some say that he is just an extremely unpleasant, entitled, and amoral person. One thing most people can probably agree on is that he is extremely unpredictable. He changes course like a fruit fly. One day he will declare something “terrible” and the next day (or hour, or minute) it is good. He plays games with people and institutions, if we believe that there is any strategy or planning in his about-faces.
He said he would “tweak” NAFTA. Then, out of the blue, he declares Canada as “very unfair” to the US on the issues of first dairy, and then lumber. He decided to run with this and announces he will cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The next day, he announced that, because Justin Trudeau and Enrique Peña Nieto called him and asked him to reconsider, he had decided to give renegotiations a shot. But, he cautioned, if the negotiations did not go well for the US, he would terminate NAFTA immediately. He appears to be reinforcing his image with his supporters as some kind of head honcho to the world, but capable of benevolence if other, lesser, leaders come to him as supplicants.
Supply management is controversial. There are many strong feelings about it, even among the dairy farmers it is meant to protect (just as there were very different opinions about the single desk system for grain among grain farmers, a system effectively killed by Stephen Harper’s government and then sold to Saudi Arabia in 2015). But the discussion and the resolution need to happen in Canada. Not dictated by a foreign government.
This is the true risk of entering into trade negotiations with as mercurial a personality as Donald Trump. He has a “play by my rules, or I’ll take my ball and go home” attitude. And, while most of the actual negotiating will involve seasoned trade negotiators, the American “Great Leader” is going to put his finger in the pie whenever he feels like it.
The big thing about international trade negotiations these days is they tend to leave dispute settlement to a process where business interests could challenge domestic laws that interfere with their ability to make a profit. This process is called Investor-State Dispute Settlement and involves lawyers and independent arbiters. This process takes place outside of any country’s judicial system, and there is a high tendency to rule in favour of corporations over national laws designed to protect workers, culture/copyright, and the environment.
President Trump has just gutted environmental protection in the US. He has cleared the way for reinvestment in coal, Arctic drilling for oil, and any other thing the fossil fuel industry might want to do. He clearly admires the dollar more than a sunset or a forest. I mean, his adult children travel the world to kill majestic animals for fun, so what could anyone expect?
There is a very real possibility that the Trump negotiators will try to put our water, our environmental regulations, and our carbon tax on the table. Not to mention universal health care (which the influential insurance industry truly hates), labour laws, and minimum wages. These are things which we, as a sovereign nation, should have full control over. They should not be dictated by a foreign country.
NAFTA is a very complex agreement, with many moving parts. Negotiating it in the first place took a long time. Every renegotiation or complaint has also taken a long time. Under a normal administration, renegotiating this time would be a lengthy process. But these are not normal circumstances and there is no way to predict how a new round of talks will play out.
There are a lot of jobs on both sides of the border dependent on a successful trade relationship. There is a loophole, built into the original NAFTA document, that would have the relationship automatically revert to the previous FTA between Canada and the US should NAFTA be dissolved. But if Trump is intent on going after that as well, some of the repercussions could be severe.
Nevertheless, there are things at stake which, once lost, could never be recovered. Environment, our health care, financial sector regulations, cultural properties, and labour laws fall into this category. Should the US want to put our water, our social safety net, or our government’s ability to regulate within our borders on the bargaining table, Canada should walk.