Mexico minister eyes accords with U.S. on trade toward year-end

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Accords to update trade relations between Mexico and the United States could be possible toward the end of this year, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on Thursday, hinting at a quicker timetable than U.S. officials have ventured so far.

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Mexico is facing tough negotiations with Washington because U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to dump the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the two nations and Canada if he cannot rework it in the United States’ favor.

Speaking to reporters in Washington after meeting Trump administration officials, Videgaray said he expected formal talks on commerce to begin around the middle of 2017 and that “possible deals over trade could be reached toward the end of the year.”

Videgaray noted that Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo was also meeting with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who this week said substantive trade talks could begin in the second half of 2017 and might take a year to complete.

Threats by Trump to slap tariffs on Mexican-made goods if the renegotiation of NAFTA does not suit him have sparked fears of a major chill in foreign investment in Mexico and a possible trade war.

Trump has vowed to bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States, saying during his presidential election campaign that Mexico is “killing” the United States on trade.

Still, Videgaray said initial soundings have been positive on reworking NAFTA, which officials say could ultimately lead to tougher rules of origin for goods made in North America.

“All of the preliminary conversations we’ve had about the potential renegotiation of NAFTA have actually been constructive. There is no talk about unilateral actions, there is talk about the potential for making NAFTA better for the three countries - Mexico, the U.S. and Canada,” he said.

Talks have been complicated by Trump’s aggressive campaign rhetoric against Mexico and his pledge to make the United States’ poorer southern neighbor pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

A Twitter spat in January over who would pay for the wall led to the cancellation of a planned meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Videgaray said funding for the wall was not discussed on Thursday, and was it clear when the two leaders would meet next.

“There is no plan for a meeting between the presidents in the immediate future,” Videgaray said.

Additional reporting by Christine Murray in Mexico City; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Leslie Adler