On eve of signing, North America trade pact still being finalized

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A day before Canada, the United States and Mexico are due to sign a new trade pact, negotiators are still thrashing out what exactly they will be putting their names to, officials said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: The flags of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are seen on a lectern before a joint news conference on the closing of the seventh round of NAFTA talks in Mexico City, Mexico March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido//File Photo

The three countries agreed a deal in principle to govern the trillion dollars of mutual trade after a year and a half of contentious talks concluded with a late-night bargain just an hour before a deadline on Sept. 30.

Yet, amid squabbling between the United States and Canada, the details of the deal are still being worked on, less than a day before the scheduled Nov. 30 signing date on the sidelines of the Group of 20 world leaders summit in Buenos Aires.

Two Canadian sources directly familiar with the talks said it was unclear whether the three countries would sign a finalized pact or settle for some sort of less formal deal, leaving contentious details to be worked out later.

“As is always the case ... with these agreements, there are always details to be finalized and we are very hard at work doing that,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Buenos Aires.

Canada was on track to sign the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), she said in televised remarks, adding that one of the issues was that the deal still needed to be translated into three languages.

A Mexican source said that “the legal review, translations and collation of documents are being concluded,” but ruled out important changes.

Officials say differences sometimes emerge as lawyers seek to nail down language agreed upon by negotiators.

One of the Canadian sources said Freeland might be hedging her bets until she was sure that a sometimes unpredictable U.S. administration would definitely sign.

But the source, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the situation, said it was nonetheless unusual that details were still being worked out so late.

“This is normally the time when people are focused on ... (finalizing) the celebratory news release,” said the source.

Canadian officials have complained the United States was trying to change elements of the pact that the sides had agreed on, sources have said.

Dairy remains a sticking point, sources familiar with the matter said this week, noting the United States was demanding detailed information about Canada’s protected dairy market.

Canada’s politically influential dairy lobby on Wednesday said the USMCA would “grant the U.S. oversight into the administration of the Canadian dairy system” and urged the government not to sign.

Reporting by David Ljunggren, additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Susan Thomas and Rosalba O’Brien