Freeland to meet Lighthizer, Grassley in Washington to push for tariff removal

OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland played down expectations as she prepared to meet in Washington with Trump trade czar Robert Lighthizer in a renewed push to get punitive steel and aluminum tariffs lifted.

"It is never wise to predict how long any negotiation will take," Freeland told reporters in Toronto on Tuesday, ahead of her Wednesday meeting at the Office of the United States Trade Representative in Washington.

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Freeland will also venture to Capitol Hill for a meeting with the influential Republican chair of the Senate finance committee, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who expressed optimism earlier Tuesday that the tariffs that he, too, opposes might soon be lifted.

Freeland reiterated that since Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have successfully renegotiated a new continental trade pact — one that still needs to be ratified in all three countries — it is time for the tariffs to be lifted "for the competitiveness of our entire continent."

"We believe it is important now more than ever to re-establish free trade in steel and aluminum between Canada and the United States," she said.

A senior government source said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing dispute, that the government will continue to lobby very assertively for the lifting of the tariffs.

"We're at a point where we need to do everything we can and talk to everyone we can about why we see these as unjust," said the source.

The meetings come after a pair of telephone calls on consecutive days late last week between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in which the controversial 25-per-cent duty on Canadian steel and 10-per-cent levy on aluminum was a major subject of conversation. Trudeau also talked to Vice-President Mike Pence about them on Tuesday.

"The prime minister raised the issue of U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and stressed the importance of their removal," said a summary of that call from Trudeau's office. He and Pence "also exchanged views on the ratification of the new North American Free Trade Agreement."

Grassley suggested to reporters in a conference call that an end to the tariffs might be close. Last month, Grassley tweeted that Trump must remove the tariffs before the new North American trade deal can be ratified.

Trump imposed them in the first place using a section of U.S. trade law that gives the president powers to put duties on imports on national-security grounds.

Freeland, Trudeau and others in Canadian government have derided the tariffs as absurd, illegal and insulting.

But Freeland has said she's heartened by the recent comments of both Republican and Democratic American lawmakers who say the new North American trade agreement that includes Mexico can't be ratified with the "Section 232" tariffs in place.

"Comments like Grassley's are indicative of a broader view held by many in Congress about the need to lift the tariffs before the new NAFTA ratifying legislation can move forward, particularly in the U.S.," the source said Tuesday.

John Manley, a former Canadian foreign-affairs minister who was recently the head of the Business Council of Canada, said nothing is certain but uncertainty itself when it comes to dealing with the Trump administration, and that includes the possibility of the tariffs being lifted any time soon.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Manley said in an interview.

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