NAFTA negotiations have opened, with critics pouncing on the transparency—or lack thereof—with which talks have thus far been conducted.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, for one, has noted:

[F]ollowing the failed model of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the USTR will be keeping the negotiating texts secret, and in an actual regression from the TPP will be holding no public stakeholder events alongside the first round. This may or may not set a precedent for future rounds, that will rotate between the three countries every few weeks thereafter, with a scheduled end date of mid-2018.

I’m generally sympathetic to the notion that to negotiate some international agreements, governments occasionally may need the space to press their international economic policy through tough confidential negotiations. But there are some suggestions that the playing field is not even when it comes to opportunities to offer input on the drafts, and that many groups have been “shut out of the negotiations, without any opportunity to see the texts that are being negotiated on our behalf.”

Similar arguments were levied the environmental group Friends of the Earth:

By holding this week’s NAFTA talks behind closed doors, keeping the negotiating text secret, and shutting out environmentalists and other advocates to brief the negotiators on our policy positions, he is silencing the voices of Americans who want clean air and clean water. The obsessive secrecy of this week’s NAFTA negotiations can be explained by the Dracula principle; if daylight were allowed to shine on the secret text and the secret talks, then Trump’s proposed NAFTA deal, like a vampire, would wither and die.

I’m not entirely familiar with the details behind each group’s grievances (and it’s notable that the USTR has posted what appears to be a good deal of positive feedback about its engagement), but regardless of the ultimate merits, the fact that there seem to be growing complaints should be taken seriously.   Interest in international trade among Americans stands, surprisingly enough, near historic highs, as people seem to acknowledge it as means of securing economic growth.  But the demand for both procedural legitimacy and stakeholder input is arguably higher than its been in decades as well, and there is a growing consensus that provisions of the text should be shared with Congress, and the public.

Memories can be short in Washington, but one need only look back a year to see how extensive criticisms of the TPP for the secrecy of the negotiations metastasized during the US election and corroded public trust in the substance and spirit of the accord.   Negotiators on all sides would be well advised to secure an incontrovertibly transparent process now, early on in the talks, to stave off jittery nerves.

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