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Is NAFTA dead? And if so, can we think beyond it?

Maude Barlow, a leading critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has tweeted, “Trump’s trade war has effectively killed NAFTA. He would not participate in a Chapter 19 challenge [in which a binational arbitration panel would decide if imposed duties are merited] or abide by a trade ruling. NAFTA is dead.”

Now Peter Donolo, the former director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien, also writes, “NAFTA – at least as we know it – is dead. Donald Trump just killed it. The reckless and crippling 25-per-cent tariff on steel and 10-per-cent tariff on aluminum that the U.S. President’s administration just used to bludgeon Canada and Mexico (not to mention the entire European Union) is the murder weapon.”

In his opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, Donolo notes, “This week the Prime Minister told a Toronto symposium that no NAFTA would be better than a bad NAFTA deal. And there are strong indications that no deal is the preferred option of the Trump administration. So what is our Plan B?”

Donolo highlights an agenda (we disagree with) including an export pipeline, more ‘free trade’ deals, more direct foreign investment, deregulation, and corporate tax cuts. We can expect to hear more of that from business lobby groups propelled by the argument that the collapse of NAFTA requires these measures.

But it’s important to remember that Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom has argued the death of NAFTA wouldn’t be such a big deal.

He highlighted, “A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that even without NAFTA, 41 per cent of Canadian exports to the U.S. would face no tariffs, while the remainder would face, on average, only modest ones. All of which is to say that ending NAFTA need not result in the severing of all economic ties to the U.S. But, by forcing us to look for other markets and other trading partners, it could lessen our dependence on Washington, which wouldn’t be such a terrible fate.”

And Walkom has said if Trump kills NAFTA then Canada essentially could do three things: “It can try to salvage a bilateral deal with the U.S. It can, in concert with Mexico, keep what remains of NAFTA on life support in the hope that Trump will eventually be replaced by a president more amenable to free trade. Or it can accept that the idea of continental economic integration is dead and strike out on a new path.”

Yesterday, Trump suggested that first option. He said, “To be honest with you, I wouldn’t mind seeing NAFTA where you’d go by a different name where you make a separate deal with Canada and a separate deal with Mexico.”

But the notion that a bilateral deal would still be anything other than a Trump-driven “America First” deal lacks credibility. Given Trudeau now says “No NAFTA is better than a bad deal”, he should also be cautious about a bad Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (like the forerunner of NAFTA signed in 1988).

So what would “a new path” look like? Put another way, what is the progressive vision for Canada post-NAFTA?

In an article in The Tyee with the headline NAFTA’s Death Would Be Cheered by Working Canadians, Says Union Leader, Unifor president Jerry Dias commented, “Both Canadians and American workers lost their jobs, the Mexican workers got the jobs but they were never compensated for it. So they really created NAFTA to create a very cheap labour pool.” So, for a start, a new path that prioritized good jobs, fair wages and workers rights would be heading in the right direction.

There will be a continued push to save NAFTA, there will be calls for neo-liberal measures, but maybe, just maybe, we are entering a political moment where we can begin to credibly propose – unburdened by the disciplines and limitations of NAFTA – policy options that would mean less power for transnational corporations, more protections for the land, water and air, and a greater recognition of workers and Indigenous rights.