National Column: Trump’s attacks put Trudeau in tight spot

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by Chantal Hebert

A field of ruins. In the wake of this weekend’s Trumpian tweet storm, that’s what is mostly left of the fragile structure Justin Trudeau had painstakingly built to try to preserve Canada’s most important trade relationship.

The fact that the prime minister did not have a hand in the demolition, or that the collateral damage extends to the White House’s relationship with the other long-standing American allies who make up the G7, does not alter the grim morning-after reality.

Trudeau’s personal relationship with Donald Trump is, if not in tatters, at the very least in a dire state.

White House watchers have become used to intemperate presidential tweets, and to the subsequent dispatching of some Trump spokesperson tasked with mopping up behind the boss.

But the presidentís attacks on Canada and Trudeau this weekend followed a different pattern. They were compounded by the deployment on the Sunday television news shows of White House mouthpieces on a mission to throw accelerants on the fire by doubling down on Trumpís criticisms. This they did with a vengeance.

In the immediate aftermath, Canadaís strategy to bring the ongoing tariff dispute between the two countries to an early and amicable end seems dead on arrival.

When Trudeau announced a retaliatory round of tariffs against the U.S. two weeks ago, he delayed their application for a month. The hope was that Trump could be brought around to exempt Canada from his latest protectionist volley before the counter-tariffs came into effect. That now sounds like wishful thinking.

As for the NAFTA negotiations, they stand to get stuck between the rock and the hard place of conflicting presidential and prime ministerial stances on the attachment of a five-year sunset clause to the tripartite agreement. Both have publicly dug in their heels on this one over the past few days.

Where the relationship goes from here and what, if anything, Canada can do to restore some normality to the conversation is far from clear.

The Conservatives would have had Canadaís retaliatory tariffs come into effect right away, a demand they reiterated in the face of Trumpís lashing out at the prime minister.

But after this weekendís fireworks, that would be construed as escalation and it is unclear that Trudeau has anything to gain by giving Trump more reasons not to climb down from his aggressive perch.

There are those who argue the only way to lower the temperature is for the prime minister and the president to meet face to face at the earliest opportunity. But without the assurance of a positive outcome, the exercise might again only exacerbate tensions.

Moreover, the post-G7 climate in Canada is not conducive to Trudeau giving even an inch, let alone a mile, to patch things up with Trump. An Abacus poll published last week found that more than 70 per cent of Canadians – including a majority of New Democrats and Conservatives – supported the federal decision to retaliate against the U.S. tariffs. And that was before the weekendís events.

There could be little public tolerance for anything on the prime ministerís part that could be construed as grovelling in the face of a bullying American president.

It is not often that one finds Stephen Harper, Andrew Scheer, Jason Kenney, Doug Ford, Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May on the same page as Trudeau. The overwhelming backing of Canada’s political class for the prime minister, standing his ground in the face of Trumpís demands, has solidified his position.

But that show of unity may also have curtailed his capacity to make deal-breaking concessions on the NAFTA front.

In his weekend attacks, Trump again took shots at Canadaís supply management approach to the dairy and poultry industries.

In theory, that is a non-negotiable item for all federal parties. In practice, Trudeauís Liberals were – at least until now – probably the most amenable to giving up some ground on the dairy front.

The votes of Quebec dairy farmers were instrumental in ensuring Scheerís Conservative leadership victory last year. With an eye on keeping their foothold in Quebec, the federal New Democrats have cast themselves as staunch supply management champions.

But not every Conservative or New Democrat constituency is wedded to the maintenance of the system.

If it came to trade-offs, Kenney and Ford (to name just two) would not necessarily put supply management behind a negotiating red line. Alberta and Ontario have other pressing NAFTA priorities.

Ditto in the case of many of the trade union allies of the NDP, in particular in the auto industry.

With his social media rants, Trump may have turned an issue that many on the Canadian side of the NAFTA table saw as a possible bargaining chip into a hill that Trudeau now has no other choice but to die on.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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