Canada's International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is still hopeful about NAFTA but knows exports must be diversified

Montreal (AFP) - Canada’s trade minister held out hope Wednesday for a new continental trade deal, but with no clear timeline for reaching an accord expressed also a renewed sense of urgency to diversify export markets.

“We must continue to negotiate with our American partners because the US is Canada’s largest economic partner,” Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told reporters.

He added that there was “no deadline” for wrapping up negotiations despite calls to conclude a deal before a July 1 Mexican presidential election and US midterm elections in November.

“But at the same time, we must also diversify our markets,” he continued, recalling that his government is “working expeditiously” and “as quickly as possible” to ratify the Trans-Pacific Free Trade (TPP) with 10 other countries.

Canada currently sends about 75 percent of its exports to the United States.

Signed in March without the United States, the TPP would enter into force 60 days after its ratification by at least six of the 11 signatory countries (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam).

The Canadian parliament will be presented a ratification bill on Thursday, but it seems unlikely to be passed before parliament breaks for the summer on June 22.

“We want to be part of the first group of countries which have ratified the TPP because we think it is important to have first-mover advantage for our companies,” Champagne said.

In the meantime, talks started last August to revamp the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have bogged down amid efforts to satisfy US President Donald Trump’s demands for better terms, including a larger share of US-made components in North American autos and a sunset clause.

No new rounds of NAFTA talks are scheduled but senior officials from all three nations remain in contact.

“We will always be at the negotiating table to promote a modern partnership, a partnership that will create jobs on both sides of the border,” Champagne said on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal.