As if NAFTA negotiations weren’t complicated enough with trying to figure out what the U.S. administration wants, Mexico’s looming election is adding another layer of political uncertainty.
The political threat to a successful renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is particularly concerning for trade-dependent industries like agriculture, as highlighted by two of the keynote speakers at the CropConnect Conference in Winnipeg this week.
“There are external events that could have a serious impact on this, for example the Mexican election coming up in July… these could change the situation dramatically,” notes former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, one of the architects of the original NAFTA deal signed in 1992.
Mexicans will head to the polls to elect a new president on July 1st. The current front-runner to replace Enrique Pena Nieto, who has served his maximum term, is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Obrador is a leftist with a history of nationalist politics. Mexico’s commitment to NAFTA could be up in the air if Obrador and his Morena party are elected.
“The thing I worry about most is: what is the government of Mexico like after the presidential elections this summer?” says David Frum, editor of The Atlantic and former speechwriter for George W. Bush. “Does Mexico remain committed to NAFTA? Because, more than the United States or Canada, Mexico has had a lot of losses because of NAFTA, especially in its traditional agriculture sector. They made a lot of sacrifices to make NAFTA work and if they don’t see benefits, they’re going to want out.”
President Trump’s tendency to speak or tweet without fully considering the consequences could impact the political outcome in Mexico, notes Frum.
“I think the under-appreciated risk is that Donald Trump’s comments about Mexico are risking radicalizing Mexican politics with their election coming up this summer. We may discover the real threat to NAFTA comes from the forces that Donald Trump has provoked inside Mexico, not from the United States where millions and millions of jobs depend on NAFTA and the people who have those jobs know they depend on NAFTA,” he says.
That might explain why the U.S. administration seemingly set its sights on Canada, rather than Mexico, saying that talks are going better with their southern neighbour. Trump himself said “Canada does not treat us right” on trade earlier this week. However, Frum says he wouldn’t give the White House credit for intentionally avoiding Mexican politics.
“I think you can easily exaggerate how planned what the Trump administration does is. This administration acts very much on mood and impulse,” he says, pointing to the still-vacant positions in the Trump trade team, including the lead agriculture negotiator post, as an example of how unorganized the U.S. trade strategy is. “There’s a lot of acting out, a lot of speaking out, but there’s not a lot of doing.”
The NAFTA spotlight will be shining on Mexico in the coming weeks, with plenty of opportunity for leaders to comment on the country’s future involvement in NAFTA. Mexico’s foreign ministry says there are plans for a meeting between Trump and Nieto in the next few weeks.
Negotiators are also headed to Mexico City for the seventh round of NAFTA talks February 25 to March 5, just weeks before Mexico’s presidential campaign formally kicks off in late March.
Hear Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney and David Frum comment on the Mexico factor in NAFTA negotiations in this short podcast from CropConnect ’18: