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U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum could be gone in weeks, ambassador says

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WASHINGTON — Canada’s ambassador to the United States says he believes punishing American tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum could be gone in a matter of weeks.

David MacNaughton is saying little else about the source of his optimism beyond what he considers to be a growing understanding south of the border that the tariffs, imposed last summer and still in place despite a new North American trade deal, are doing more harm than good.

MacNaughton made the comments in Washington during a day-long free-trade forum hosted by the Canadian American Business Council.

He was coy about what may have changed, although there have been some significant developments on the U.S. political front, including President Donald Trump’s decision last week to declare a national emergency at the Mexico-U.S. border.

That move, designed to circumvent Congress in the president’s efforts to secure billions in funding for his border wall, effectively ended an ongoing standoff between the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill that had been consuming a lot of oxygen in Washington.

MacNaughton also put to rest another persistent question in Ottawa, describing as “fake news” the speculation that he might be poised to replace Gerald Butts as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary.

He’s also confident that U.S. lawmakers will eventually ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, although when remains an open question.

On the issue of tariffs, however MacNaughton is sounding more bullish than he has in a while.

“I think that we’ll get there in the next few weeks,” he said.

“It is obviously difficult to predict accurately exactly what is going to happen here — there are many moving parts, there are other distractions — but I’m confident that we’re going to get there in the next few weeks.”

MacNaughton has been predicting a quick resolution to the tariff issue for a while. But there was a certainty in his comments Thursday that hasn’t been there much of late, especially when the topic came up during a panel discussion alongside Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

“I think we’re going to resolve it in a positive way in the next short while,” he said. “I don’t want to go into great detail, but I think we’re going to resolve this matter soon … even governments end up doing the right thing eventually.”

MacNaughton and Garneau were just two of the past and present lawmakers, diplomats and business leaders from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico gathered in Washington to explore when Congress might get around to debating the merits of the USMCA.

Trump was, of course, top of mind for many. Former New York congressman Joe Crowley, who lost his nomination last year to rising Democrat star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, blamed the president for having “weaponized” the issue of trade, a tactic that has alienated two of America’s most important allies.

Gordon Giffin and Jim Blanchard, two former U.S. ambassadors to Canada, shared a panel with former Canadian envoy Gary Doer, all three of whom called on the White House to lift its tariffs on steel and aluminum.  They also agreed the new trade deal can’t be passed until those tariffs are lifted.

Tariffs aside, a number of Democrats and Republicans say they won’t vote for NAFTA 2.0 in its current form.

Democrats say the agreement lacks labour and environmental enforcement, and some don’t like its extended drug patent protections. U.S. officials say those concerns will have to be dealt with in so-called side letters or the bill Congress votes on to enact the deal.

The Canadian Press

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