May 11, 2017 / 3:03 PM / in 4 months

Canada taps veteran negotiator to drive talks on NAFTA: sources

FILE PHOTO: Semi trucks heading for Detroit, Michigan, drive on the lane to Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s senior negotiator at talks to renew NAFTA will be the official who worked for years to push through a major free trade deal with Europe, two sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Steve Verheul faces another challenge as he deals with the United States, which is threatening to walk away from the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement unless major changes are made. The talks, which will also include Mexico, are due to start later this year.

“He will play a significant and instrumental role in handling and managing any future negotiations,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity because the news had not been announced yet.

The development was previously reported by the iPolitics website.

Verheul is a career bureaucrat. At certain points during the talks, Canada will most likely be represented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, said the sources.

Verheul enjoyed a close working relationship last year with Freeland - who was then trade minister - as they strained to seal the pact with the European Union, which at one stage looked close to collapse.

Freeland is now in overall charge of ties with the United States. She has praised Verheul several times in public.

The talks on the EU trade deal were started by Canada’s Conservative government in 2009. Former trade minister Ed Fast, who worked with Verheul for years, described him as a brilliant tactician.

“He has the ability to remain calm under trying circumstances ... he is incredibly patient,” Fast said in a phone interview.

The negotiations are crucial for Canada, which sends

75 percent of its goods exports to the United States.

The Canadian government also intends to send a top trade bureaucrat to Washington to serve as the deputy head of the embassy, starting in September, the sources said.

Kirsten Hillman, currently in charge of trade policy at the foreign ministry, was Canada’s chief negotiator at talks on the proposed 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership pact.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the treaty in late January. The remaining 11 nations met last week to discuss ways of reviving the agreement.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alistair Bell

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