Tag Archives: NAFTA

Trump Trade Policy ‘Achievements’: The First Month

Alicia Nicholls

February 20th marked United States (US) President Donald Trump’s first full month in the Oval Office. And what a month it has been! We have seen a lot of focus by his administration on immigration. But what about trade? Trade occupied a major part of the platform of then US presidential candidate Trump. In his Contract with the American Voter , he had enumerated several trade-related pledges as part of his 100-day action plan to “Make America Great Again”. His first one hundred days are not yet up, but it is worth looking at what have been the achievements towards his “America first” trade policy during his first month in office.

President Trump’s Trade Promises

As a reminder, these were the major trade-related promises gleaned from his Contract with the American Voter. He pledged to:

  • Announce his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205;
  • Announce the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership;
  • Direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator;
  • Direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately;
  • Work with Congress to introduce the “End Offshoring Act” to establish tariffs to discourage US companies from laying off their workers in order to relocate in other countries and ship their products back to the U.S. tax-free.

Three main reasons possibly explain Mr. Trump’s slow progress on his trade agenda thus far. Firstly, two key members of his trade team  who are needed to help effect his policies are still awaiting Senate confirmation, namely his United States Trade Representative (USTR) pick, noted trade lawyer and former deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, Robert Lighthizer, and his commerce secretary nominee, Wilbur Ross, an investor and former banker.

Secondly and related to the first point,Mr. Trump’s policy inexperience means he will likely be more reliant on the guidance and advice of his yet-to-be confirmed trade team than would other presidents. Thirdly, it is possible that Mr. Trump is realising that there is a wide chasm between presidential campaign rhetoric and how Washington and the role of president actually work, particularly when contrasted with being a CEO of one’s own company.

What has he achieved so far and what hasn’t he?

With that in mind, it is not surprising that of his stated promises, his only substantive trade policy achievement thus far has been directing the USTR via a presidential memorandum to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Withdrawal from the TPP was a low-hanging fruit. The US had signed but not yet ratified the Agreement and there was almost bi-partisan criticism of the deal. The acting USTR has since followed up on this memorandum, submitting a withdrawal letter to the TPP depository and TPP partners, and indicating their interest in bilateral trade deals with former TPP partners with which the US does not currently have a trade agreement.

Further to the latter point, President Trump and his soon-to-be confirmed trade team have been consistent so far on their preference for bilateralism over multilateralism. Trade was one of the hot button topics at his initial meetings with United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Theresa May,   Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

In keeping with his campaign promise that post-Brexit UK would not be at the back of queue for a trade deal, Mr. Trump received Prime Minister May as his first foreign head of government. The two have reportedly agreed to establish working groups in regards to a possible post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. Indeed, the UK House of Common’s International Trade Committee has already launched an inquiry on this.  However, formal negotiations on any such deal can only legally begin once the UK concludes its withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU) pursuant to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

More immediately possible, however, may be trade talks between Japan and the US. Despite Mr. Trump’s earlier criticism of former TPP partner Japan’s “unfair trade practices”, the meeting with Mr. Abe went cordially, with agreement in principle for beginning US-Japan trade and investment talks. It should be noted that Japan has a large trade surplus with the US, boosted particularly by automobile exports, which might be a bone of contention in any trade talks between the two countries.

Outside of withdrawing from the TPP and these preliminary aspirational trade talks, there has been limited progress so far on his specific campaign promise in comparison to the ambitious agenda he proposed. So far he has not labelled China a “currency manipulator”. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had indicated that China’s currency was no longer below value. Nonetheless, Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, hesitated in a recent CNBC interview to “pass judgment” on China’s currency practices, stating his preference to go through the US Treasury’s established process on judging whether China (and other countries) was manipulating its currency to boost exports.

Additionally, President has not yet triggered the 90-day notice period by informing Congress of his intention to renegotiate NAFTA, which he had promised to do “immediately”. While Mr. Trump has criticised the shift of US jobs to Mexico and the US’ large merchandise trade with that NAFTA partner, it is also not clear on what particular provisions of the agreement he wishes to “tweak”.

What is clear is that Mr. Trump’s main grievance with NAFTA appears to be with Mexico more so than with Canada. Indeed, Mr. Trump took a less protectionist stance towards Canada during his meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, speaking collectively of keeping jobs and wealth within North America (US and Canada) and not just the US. While reporting on his meeting with Canada’s Prime Trudeau indicates that he would be looking for greater access by American firms to Canadian procurement markets, it is unclear when the NAFTA renegotiation talks will begin.

With respect to the promise to direct the USTR to identify countries engaging in “unfair trade practices”, his USTR nominee is still awaiting confirming. However, it has been longstanding US policy to challenge nations whose actions are against US economic and trading interests, as evidenced by the large number of disputes brought by the US before the WTO’s dispute settlement body.  Therefore, President Trump will not be doing anything more than what previous US administrations have done in this regard, although we will likely see an even more aggressive stance towards China’s trade practices.

Mr. Trump has spoken frequently against US companies which offshore production processes (and therefore jobs), as evidenced by his deal with air conditioner maker Carrier. He has promised to, but has not yet proposed, legislation to impose a punitive tax on US companies seeking to offshore may receive stiff opposition from the business community and from Congress.

He has, however, vacillated in his views on the controversial Border  Adjustment  Tax (BAT) proposal being pushed by Congressional Republicans as part of their tax reform plan. Different from Trump’s border tariff proposal, the GOP BAT Proposal seeks to convert the US corporate income tax from an origin-based to a destination-based tax. It would prevent companies from deducting the costs of their imported goods as an expense, while giving a tax break to companies which export. However, while some business leaders have praised the idea, some economists have argued that it will not boost US exports.

What next?

Besides the questions surrounding the renegotiation of NAFTA and which other nations the Administration will earmark for future bilateral deals, it is unclear what will be the Trump administration’s stance on other existing trade agreements, and on the on-going negotiations, including the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU and on the plurilateral negotiations such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). There is also need for clarity on the Administration’s position on key multilateral trade issues, bearing in mind the WTO’s upcoming 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, it is early days yet and it is hoped there will be greater policy clarity before the one hundred days have elapsed.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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“What’s Next for NAFTA?” FITT Trade Elite Chat Recap

Alicia Nicholls

Last Thursday I was a panellist for the Forum for International Trade Training’s (FITT) Trade Elite Twitter Chat on “What’s Next for NAFTA” – the North American Free Trade Agreement which comprises the United States (US), Canada and Mexico.

My fellow panellists were Horacio Lopez-Portillo, a Partner at Vazquez, Tercero and Zepeda in Mexico City,  John Boscariol, Partner and leader of the International Trade and Investment Law Group at McCarthy Tetrault LLP in Toronto, Joy Nott, the President and CEO of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters (I.E. Canada) in Toronto and  Paola Viviana Murillo, the Founder and Director of Latincouver. The moderator was Jon Yormick, Special Counsel for Phillips Lytle LLP.

The topic is timely in light of new US President Donald Trump’s sustained criticism of NAFTA and his call for a renegotiation of the over two-decades old agreement. The discussion focused on issues surrounding the strengths and weaknesses of NAFTA in its current dispensation, whether there was the need for a NAFTA 2.0, whether other more modern free trade agreements like the recently concluded EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) could serve as useful models for a NAFTA 2.0,how  issues such as e-commerce, labour, services and the environment should be addressed, and how much blame should really be placed on NAFTA for job losses.

Please feel free to read FITT’s recap of the robust discussion on their website here. Further information on FITT’s past and upcoming Tradeelite Chats can also be found in the FITT website at the previous link.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in Review Part I: The Investment Chapter

Alicia Nicholls

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is the largest regional free trade deal concluded to date, creating a free trade area which encompasses 12 Pacific-rim countries and which accounts for 40% of global GDP. The TPP in its preamble speaks of the goal to establish a comprehensive regional agreement that promotes economic integration to liberalise trade and investment, bring economic growth and social benefits, among other things. However, like NAFTA over two decades ago, the TPP Agreement has been mired in controversy from its embryonic stages, with opinion sharply divided on whether it truly advances global trade or whether it sets the clock back on development issues such as labour rights and the environment. This article attempts a sober look at some of the main provisions of the investment chapter of the TPP and is the first in a series of articles which will examine some of the key aspects of the Agreement.

Framers of International Investment Agreements (IIAs) have to play a delicate balancing act between protecting the rights of investors while at the same time preserving the right of host states to regulate in the public interest and in the interest of fulfilling policy objectives.

The TPP’s investment chapter shares many striking but unsurprising similarities with the US Model Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) 2012. It includes a long list of definitions followed by substantive provisions detailing investor rights and finally a separate section on procedural provisions providing for Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

Definition of “investment”

The definition of “investment”  in the TPP Agreement is broad akin to that in the US Model BIT 2012. It defines an investment as “every asset that an investor owns or controls, directly or indirectly, that has the characteristics of an investment, including such characteristics as the commitment of capital or other resources, the expectation of gain or profit, or the assumption of risk”. It outlines some of the forms which an investment for the purposes of the Agreement may take. The definition of “investor” is standard and does not merit much discussion for present purposes.

Treatment

The TPP includes national treatment and Most Favoured Nation treatment clauses, which are standard clauses in nearly all IIAs. The National treatment provision (Article 9.4) provides that parties are to accord to investors of another Party and their covered investments treatment no less favourable than that they accord in like circumstances, to their own investors and their investors’ own investments with respect to the establishment, acquisition, expansion, management, conduct, operation, and sale or other disposition of investments in its territory. It establishes pre-establishment rights, which is typical of US BITs and US-modelled IIAs.

In recent years the inclusion of the Most Favoured Nation clause in IIAs has been controversial as it allows for treaty shopping. Investors who are claimants in disputes have sought to rely on these clauses to benefit from more favourable treatment provided by the respondent state in treaties with third parties. In Maffezini v Spain, a precedent was established where an investor was able to benefit from more favourable dispute settlement provisions in a treaty which the respondent state had entered into with a third party state. As a result, a few IIAs have opted to omit MFN clauses.

One of the criticisms which have been levelled at the TPP is that the MFN clause potentially negates any progress made on rebalancing the rights of investors with states’ rights to regulate by allowing investors to cherry pick from provisions in older and more investor-friendly agreements.

To their credit, the drafters of the TPP have sought to build in several safeguards. Firstly, at section 9.5(3) a carve-out is made exempting procedural provisions such as those in Section B (ISDS) from applicability of the MFN clause. Secondly, it uses the qualifier term “in like circumstances”, although a broad interpretation by an arbitration tribunal may still be possible.

Minimum Standard of Treatment

The minimum standard of treatment provided for under the TPP is similar to those found in bilateral investment treaties (BITs) and IIAs in general. Per Article 9.6, each Party must accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with applicable customary international law principles, including fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security.

The FET provision in many BITs has been the cause of headache for many states due to its vagueness. This has made it open to interpretation by tribunals which have tended to expand the scope of FET to encompass rights beyond customary international law standards. The proliferation of FET cases brought by investors under NAFTA’s ISDS prompted the NAFTA Commission to release an interpretative note which declared definitively that fair and equitable standard of treatment was no more than the minimum standard of treatment afforded to aliens under customary international law. This language was also included in the US and Canada model BITs.

The TPP drafters sought to mitigate this in several ways. Article 9.6(2) clearly states that the concepts of “fair and equitable treatment” and “full protection and security” do not require treatment in addition to or beyond that which is required by that standard, and do not create additional substantive rights. For greater certainty, the framers go further to define what they mean by “FET” and “full protection and security”.

The framers also go to lengths to define what does not constitute a breach. Article 9.6(3) states that determination of a breach of another Article does not establish a breach of Article 9.6. Furthermore, neither the mere fact that a Party takes or fails to take an action that may be inconsistent with an investor’s expectations nor that a subsidy or grant has not been issued, renewed or maintained, or has been modified or reduced, by a Party, do not constitute breaches of this Article, even if there is loss or damage to the covered investment as a result.

Expropriation and Compensation

One of the most pervasive threats posed to foreign investors in a foreign country is direct or indirect expropriation of their investment by the host state without compensation being paid. Similar to standard BITs, the TPP provides that state parties may take measures which directly or indirectly expropriate a covered investment but only in the circumstances outlined under Article 9.7(1) and with compensation.

Performance Requirements

In its preamble, the framers of the TPP talk about recognising the differences in the levels of development and diversity of economies of member states. However, how has this been borne out in the provisions? Performance requirements have been typically used by countries to ensure that investors add value to the local economy. These include requirements on the investor to buy local goods and services, set levels of exports of goods and services, technology transfer and domestic content requirements. The TRIMS Agreement prohibits trade-related performance requirements. However, it has been common practice for US-based FTAs to include prohibitions against all performance requirements. The TPP follows this approach. Four of the twelve parties to the TPP are developing countries.  This therefore will have an effect on those developing countries members of the Agreement as their ability to ensure investors make a contribution to their economies through the use of non-trade related performance requirements will be compromised.

Free Transfer

One of the basic assurances investors look for is the ability to move their assets, such as repatriated profits, freely and without delay into and out of the host country. A standard provision in BITs, Article 9.8 of the TPP protects this right and is subject to the exceptions in 9.8(4). Of concern is that no exception is included for where the host state is encountering exceptional economic or financial challenges, such as currency and balance of payments difficulties. The omission of an exception for financial and economic difficulties is typical of US treaty practice but some treaties such as some UK BITs allow a carve-out for this. Such a provision would be particularly useful for developing countries which are generally more vulnerable to balance of payments difficulties.

Special Formalities and Information Requirements

Article 9.13 of the TPP provides carve-outs from National Treatment and MFN for special formalities and information requirements. It includes a carve-out from the National Treatment provision, allowing a Party to adopt and maintain measures which prescribes special formalities in connection with a covered investment, such as residency requirements for registration and requirements that a covered investment be legally constituted under the laws or regulations of the Party, provided that these formalities do not materially impair the protections afforded by the Party to investors of another Party and covered investments under the Chapter.

It also makes a carve-out from the National Treatment and MFN provisions allowing a Party to require an investor of another Party or its covered investment to provide information concerning that investment solely for informational or statistical purposes. However, such information is to be kept confidential from any disclosure which would prejudice the competitive position of the investor or the covered investment.

Carve-outs for Regulatory Objectives

Investment Agreements are a balancing act between the rights of investors and the rights of host states to regulate in the public interest and in the interest of fulfilling policy objectives. Article 9.15 attempts to make a carve-out by providing that nothing in the Agreement should be construed to prevent a Party from adopting, maintaining or enforcing any measure otherwise consistent with this Chapter that it considers appropriate to ensure that investment activity in its territory is undertaken in a manner sensitive to environmental, health or other regulatory objectives. However, what happens if the measure in question is not consistent with this Chapter. The inclusion of the phrase “otherwise consistent with this Chapter” is a loophole which potentially negates the efficacy of this carve-out.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The provision on CSR in Article 9.16 is rather weak; it is drafted in best endeavour language and is not enforceable. It simply reaffirms the importance of each Party to encourage enterprises operating in its territory or subject to its jurisdiction to voluntarily incorporate internationally recognised CSR principles into their internal policies. A stronger CSR provision would have been ideal here, particularly a requirement that investors comply with all applicable laws in the host State, comply with international labour standards and adopt environmentally sustainable practices.

ISDS

The most disdain for the TPP’s investment chapter has been targeted at the ISDS provisions. ISDS systems allow an investor to bring a claim directly against the host state. A feature of investment law, they are an innovation in public international law as there is no requirement for the exhaustion of local remedies and the investor can bring the claim directly without having to go through its state of nationality.

Critics argue that ISDS provisions only serve to give investors the ability to sue host States for introducing public policy legislation deemed to hurt their investment. The truth is that the majority of BITs have ISDS provisions. In this regard the TPP is neither unique nor more onerous. ISDS systems are more efficient, while the use of an arbitration tribunal instead of the local courts ensures that decisions are rendered fairly and free of political bias.

That withstanding, the ISDS has many well-documented flaws. ISDS cases are a costly exercise and have been a painful experience for those States which have found themselves on the wrong end of an arbitral award. However, UNCTAD data shows that of the 356 known cases concluded, 37 percent were won by the State, 25% by the investor and 28% were settled. Therefore, it is not an automatic case that the investor wins.

The TPP provides several options of arbitral forum and includes several provisions which attempt to address some of the criticisms made about the ISDS. There is the requirement that the parties to the dispute attempt to resolve the dispute through consultation and negotiation. Claims cannot be made after more than three years and six months have elapsed from the date on which the claimant first acquired, or should have first acquired, knowledge of the breach alleged.

Lack of transparency has been one of the biggest criticisms leveled at the ISDS system as many arbitral proceedings and awards are not made public. Article 9.23 which deals with transparency in arbitral proceedings, provides that certain documents are to be made public “promptly”. What constitutes “prompt” is not defined and will likely depend on the circumstances. The tribunal is to conduct hearings in public, a marked departure from what is provided in most IIAs. However, Article 9.23(3) makes exceptions for protected information and information that may be withheld under the articles on security exceptions and disclosure of information. The TPP’s ISDS allows for the consolidation of claims arising out of the same set of events or circumstances.

In determining whether to make an award to the prevailing disputing party of reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred in submitting or opposing the objection.is warranted, the TPP provides that the tribunal is to consider whether either the claimant’s claim or the respondent’s objection was frivolous, and is to provide the disputing parties a reasonable opportunity to comment. If the tribunal determines such claims to be frivolous, the tribunal may award to the respondent reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.

My verdict on the Investment Chapter

The investment provisions in the TPP are generally no more generous to investors than those found in most standard BITs, including the US Model BIT 2012. Indeed, in several cases the TPP’s framers have attempted to close some of the loopholes which have been so troublesome in older BITs, such as with the FET clause. There are some weaknesses and grey areas in the Agreement. The biggest concern is the MFN clause which if a liberal interpretation by an arbitral tribunal is given may ultimately undo a lot of the improvements made in the TPP by allowing investors to rely on more favourable provisions in other agreements concluded by the host state. While there are some exceptions and additions, the influence of the US model BIT 2012 on the language and content of the TPP’s Investment Chapter is quite strong. The TPP also falls into the same trap many IIAs do in that strong investor protections are not matched by strong obligations on the investor to adhere to local laws, follow environmentally sustainable practices or labour standards. Perhaps the framers missed a chance here to advance investment treaty practice on this. While the TPP is not as development-friendly as one would wish, its investor protections are generally no more generous than most traditional BITs. However, the real test will be in the Treaty’s operation once it comes into force.

More articles in this TPP article series are available here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.