NAFTA to USMCA: A Brief Overview of Significant Changes - Global Trade Magazine
  October 8th, 2020 | Written by

NAFTA to USMCA: A Brief Overview of Significant Changes

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  • The USMCA comes into effect in what undoubtedly are unprecedented times in modern history.
  • While NAFTA had no provisions relating to dairy, the USMCA increases the opportunity for dairy exports to Canada.
  • The general consensus is that the USMCA achieves some notable changes and a number of incremental improvements.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) became effective on July 1, 2020, 26 years after its predecessor, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While NAFTA was originally conceived during the 1980s, the free-trade block did not materialize until the early 1990s, in part as a result of the perceived need to counterbalance the effects of the then–recently created European Union (1993). Mexico was experiencing unprecedented economic growth under the administration of President Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), an economist and the first non-lawyer elected into the Mexican presidency since 1958, while President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) was driving sustained economy growth in the United States that ultimately led to a US federal budget surplus from 1998 to 2001. Canada, on the other hand, had just elected Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (1993-2003), who had run, at least partly, on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA within six months, as he believed that the new free trade agreement negotiated by then–Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) made too many concessions to the Mexicans and Americans.

In contrast, the USMCA comes into effect in what undoubtedly are unprecedented times in modern history. Although there existed a consensus among member states that the tri-lateral agreement needed an update, no one could have predicted that its successor would be greeted by an economic downturn caused (or accelerated) by a crippling pandemic that has forced an almost complete shutdown of the Mexican and United States economies.

In addition, while the US-Mexico relationship appears relatively strong, the US relationship with Canada has been more strained, marked by intermittent friction between the two countries on a variety of trade-related issues, such as steel tariffs in the United States and dairy tariffs in Canada. Given this backdrop, it is hard to predict how smooth the implementation of the USMCA will be. For example, in late-July hearings in the US House, both parties’ lawmakers exacted promises from the US Trade Representative’s office that it would quickly and aggressively use the USMCA’s enforcement mechanisms, with those representatives revealing that some cases were “ready to go” and would be on file by this autumn.

The general consensus is that the USMCA achieves some notable changes and a number of incremental improvements. A full description of these changes is beyond the scope of this discussion, but the changes that will likely have the greatest impact relate to a few, select industries, and certain procedural changes, including the following:

Domestic Content Rules for Automobiles

Auto content rules were a major issue throughout the USMCA negotiations. The USMCA includes two significant changes to how cars will be made and when they can be declared as made in the United States. First, the USMCA increases to 75% (from 62.5%) the percentage of a vehicle’s parts that must be manufactured in North America. Although the 75% number has garnered most of the attention, the USMCA (as did NAFTA) actually includes different rules: Part content is divided into core, principal, and complementary parts with content requirements of 75%, 65%, and 60%, respectively. The content calculations will also be subject to the USMCA’s rules of origin, which do away with NAFTA’s tracing scheme as well as the concept of “deemed originating.” These changes will affect the automotive supply chain. For example, the USMCA introduces a new rule requiring that 70% of the total steel and aluminum used in an automobile must be sourced from North American suppliers. Combined with the elimination of the tariff shift rules for stamped products, this will require supply chain changes for a number of auto producers.

While there are broader labor rules incorporated into the USMCA, the primary focus is on the agreement’s new requirements that workers earning at least $16 per hour make 40% to 45% of a vehicle’s components.

In keeping with the findings of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 relating to automobiles, the USMCA incorporates quotas for Canadian and Mexican auto imports. Although the quota is well above current rates, this provision likely will morph into an issue in future years.

Labor Laws

The USMCA includes an array of labor-focused provisions. One example is a requirement that the countries adopt and enforce labor laws consistent with the International Labor Organization. The signatories also agreed to effectively enforce labor laws, and not to waive or derogate from them. The USMCA also requires the countries to: (1) take measures to prohibit the importation of goods produced by forced labor; (2) address violence against workers exercising their labor rights; (3) address sex-based discrimination in the workplace; and (4) ensure that migrant workers are protected under labor laws.

The USMCA also includes an Annex on Worker Representation in Collective Bargaining in Mexico, under which Mexico commits to specific legislative actions to provide for the effective recognition of the right to collectively bargain. To fulfill this commitment, Mexico enacted historic labor reforms on May 1, 2019, and is implementing transformational changes to its labor regime, including new independent institutions for registering unions and collective bargaining agreements and new and impartial labor courts to adjudicate disputes.

The agreement also requires all businesses in Mexico to ensure that they are in compliance with all aspects of the USMCA, including the collective bargaining provisions. The United States and Mexico have established a Facility-Specific, Rapid Response Labor Mechanism (Labor Mechanism) to enforce the collective bargaining obligations through the imposition of remedies, which may include the suspension of the preferential tariff on goods manufactured by a breaching facility. The countries have already begun their appointments to these dispute-resolution bodies, and the US Trade Representative has testified that cases are already being identified for action in the fall of 2020.

Other Notable Changes

While NAFTA had no provisions relating to dairy, the USMCA increases the opportunity for dairy exports to Canada, long a contentious issue between the two countries, making the US Dairy industry a winner in the deal. As Alan Ross of Canadian law firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP states “Under the new agreement, US dairy farmers receive access to about 3.5% of Canada’s $16 billion annual domestic dairy market. Operationally, Canada will provide new tariff rate quotas exclusively for the United States and eliminate certain milk price classes, changes which have proven unpopular with the Canadian dairy industry.”

Also, the USMCA (1) includes environmental obligations to, among other things, combat wildlife trafficking, address air and marine quality, and protect marine life and, as part of its environmental efforts, the USMCA provides funds for monitoring these environmental efforts; and (2) prohibits customs duties on digital products (i.e., products that are transmitted electronically, such as computer programs, videos, or music). This last issue alone merits further analysis and consideration, as digital taxes become de rigueur in Europe and elsewhere. Finally yet importantly, unlike NAFTA, the USMCA includes a sunset clause. The countries settled on a 16-year term for the deal, with a review to identify and fix problems and a chance to extend the deal after six years.

Monitoring and Enforcement

The signatories countries are to make every endeavor to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution of all disputes arising out of the USMCA.  However, if they are not able to reach a resolution, Chapter 31 of the USMCA provides the framework for dispute settlement. In it, the parties will first consult with technical experts in the hopes of resolving the dispute. Should that fail, a ministerial panel will review the dispute and submit a final report. If the final report finds that (1) the measure is inconsistent with a party’s obligation; (2) a party has failed to carry out its obligations under the USMCA; or (3) the measure is causing nullification or impairment of the scope, the disputing parties must try to agree on the proper resolution for the dispute within 45 days. If the disputing parties are unable to resolve the dispute within 45 days, the complaining party can suspend the responding party’s benefits of equivalent effect to the dispute.

The USMCA retains the binational panel reviews of unfair trade law matters. These include customs determinations, antidumping and countervailing duty determinations, government procurement, breach of the most-favored-nation treatment for investors (noting that Canada has opted out of the investment provision of the USMCA), and disputes involving public telecommunications services, digital trade, intellectual property, labor rights, and environmental obligations.

In a significant change from NAFTA, the investment chapter (Chapter 14) of the USMCA (1) only applies to the US and Mexico (given Canada’s withdrawal from investor-state dispute settlement regime – ISDS), and (2) narrows the circumstances under which cross-border investors can bring actions under the general rules of ISDS. For instance, the USMCA prevents many US and Mexican investors from asserting claims under the “fair and equitable treatment” standard, which is included in most international investment treaties and is a frequent basis for such claims. Exactly how this will impact cross-border activities remains to be seen.

Generally speaking, Chapter 14 provides access to international arbitration for general investments and covered government contracts subject to satisfaction of certain pre-arbitration conditions and limitations (including the exhaustion of local remedies and certain statutes of limitation). Investors (post—established investment) may seek protection for breach of national treatment and most-favored-nation treatment under the general investments protections. Further, under the government-covered contracts protections, investors in oil and gas production, telecommunications, transportation, certain infrastructure, and power generation may also be entitled to protection under the USMCA. Lastly, it should be noted that (1) the participation of Mexico and Canada in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (otherwise known as the CPTPP) will force all investors to take a fresh look at their options when seeking relief from wrongdoing by another state, and (2) the consent by Canada to ISDS for legacy investment claims will elapse three years after NAFTA’s termination.

As mentioned above, the USMCA also created the Labor Mechanism as a way to deal with labor disputes. In particular, the Labor Mechanism enables the United States and Canada to bring a dispute against a facility in Mexico that they believe is not in compliance with Mexico’s new labor laws. The Labor Mechanism permits the suspension of the preferential tariff as a remedy, the imposition of penalties on goods or services from the violating facility, or the denial of entry of goods from the violating facility.

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While we remain confident that member states are invested in the growth of the North America region as a whole, and the consensus is that the USMCA does address some of the most relevant concerns of the parties to the tri-lateral agreements during the NAFTA years, it will be hard to really measure the USMCA’s true effects (whether positive or adverse) in the short and possibly mid-term given, among other things, the political and economic turmoil that has seen it take its first steps.