WASHINGTON (CN) – The former prime minister of Canada on Tuesday urged senators to oppose the United States’ backing away from NAFTA as the future of the trade agreement remains in question.
“People are interested in making perfection the enemy of the good,” Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “We’ve got a great trade agreement now that benefits the three countries enormously. And if you want to improve it, fine, everybody is open to that. But if you want to make it perfect and say perfection is the way I see the world and it has to be the way I want it, then I don’t think we’re going to get there.”
Mulroney was one of three former government officials who hailed the virtues of NAFTA to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, saying it has increased prosperity for Mexico, Canada and the United States in the two decades since it was signed.
Their testimony largely ran against the rhetoric from President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of the trade deal to the point of threatening to pull the United States out of the agreement. The Trump administration announced in February 2017 it intended to renegotiate NAFTA with the goal of making it more favorable for the United States.
Negotiators finished up their sixth round of negotiations on the trade agreement on Monday, but the countries are reportedly still far from a deal. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a speech at the conclusion of the talks that the negotiators have made progress, but that the negotiations need to pick up speed.
“To conclude, some real headway was made here today,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said. “The United States views NAFTA as a very important agreement. We are committed to moving forward. I am hopeful progress will accelerate soon. We will work very hard between now and the beginning of the next round, and we hope for major breakthroughs during that period. We will engage with both Mexico and Canada urgently, and we will go where these negotiations take us.”
The next round of talks on the trade agreement is set to begin at the end of February. The countries initially aimed to have the negotiations completed by the end of last year, but moved the deadline to March 31 and could push it back again due to Mexico’s upcoming presidential election.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the administration is leaning towards remaining in the agreement with some tweaks.
“My sense is that we could well end up in a good place,” Corker said.
Mulroney and Jamie Serra Puche, Mexico’s former secretary of Commerce and Industry who also testified at the hearing, agreed NAFTA can be modernized, but warned senators that U.S. talk of pulling out has increased uncertainty in Canada and Mexico. Puche also told the panel the tough talk on trade and immigration coming from the White House has damaged public opinion of the United States in Mexico.
Mulroney also said the U.S. should be careful about setting narrow constraints for itself in the talks, noting the trade agreement is a key part of the United States’ larger relationship.
“We can modernize NAFTA, we can improve it, we can do all kinds of things, but we shouldn’t throw it away because it’s working well,” Mulroney said.
The lone critic of the pro-trade talk that dominated the hearing Monday was Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who pressed Puche on what happens to U.S. jobs when the country signs a deal with a country with lower labor standards, such as Mexico.
“I just wanted to drop a counterpoint to much of the conversation we’ve heard today, because American workers have not participated in the vast increase in wealth in America in the last four decades and trade policy has a lot to do with that,” Merkley said.
Puche responded by saying while some jobs might go across the border, people in the United States generally benefit from trade with Mexico. He noted U.S. agricultural exports have gone up since NAFTA went into effect.
“It’s true that labor in Mexico is cheaper, no doubt, and that should be an advantage for the region,” Puche said. “But it is also true that capital is much more expensive in Mexico. So you have a complication of complementarities which can be a win-win, which is what I have been trying to say.”