Much remains to be done before a new North American Free Trade Agreement is reached, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Thursday, tempering hopes for a quick deal as ministers met in Washington for a third successive day.
Negotiators from the United States, Mexico and Canada have been working constantly for weeks to clinch a deal, but major differences remain on contentious topics such as autos content.
Complicating matters, the Trump administration has threatened to impose sanctions on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum on May 1 if not enough progress has been made on NAFTA.
President Donald Trump, who came into office in January 2017 decrying NAFTA and other international trade deals as unfair to the United States, has repeatedly threatened to walk away from the agreement with Canada and Mexico, which took effect in 1994.
"It is going, it's going, but not easy — too many things, too many issues to tackle," Guajardo told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Now under way for eight months, the talks to revamp the accord underpinning $1.2 trillion in trade entered a more intensive phase after the last formal round of negotiations ended in March with ministers vowing to push for a deal.
Lighthizer is due to visit China next week, and when asked if a deal was possible before the USTR left, Guajardo said: "It will depend on our abilities and creativity. We are trying to do our best, but there are still a lot of things pending."
Although Washington is keen for an agreement soon to avoid clashing with a July 1 Mexican presidential election, the three NAFTA members remain locked in talks to agree on new rules governing minimum content requirements for the auto industry.
Still, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected the notion that discussion of the so-called rules of origin for the automotive sector was holding up the process.
"I would very much disagree with the characterization of the autos conversation as being log-jammed," she said as she entered the USTR offices. "This is a week when very good, significant progress is being made on rules of origin for the car sector."
Freeland said she would skip a planned visit to a NATO summit in Brussels on Friday, and vowed to stay in Washington for "as long as it takes." Guajardo, too, said he was ready to remain in Washington this week for more talks.
The three sides are also trying to settle disagreements over U.S. demands to change how trade disputes are handled, to restrict access to agricultural markets and to include a clause that would allow a country to quit NAFTA after five years.
Bosco de la Vega, head of Mexico's National Agricultural Council, the main farm lobby, said he believed the three would be able to reach an agreement on agricultural access.
But the auto sector rules were still contentious, he added.
"It's the most important issue there," he said, adding that he had earmarked May 10 as the deadline for a quick deal.
Separately, Canada on Thursday unveiled details of how it plans to prevent the smuggling of cheap steel and aluminum into the North American market in a bid to avoid the U.S. tariffs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who announced the plan last month, said Ottawa would hire 40 new trade officers to probe complaints, including those related to steel and aluminum.