It is no secret that Donald Trump is a big opponent of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which aims to create a free trading area covering Canada, the United States and Mexico. Trump campaigned on a pledge to either reform or scrap NAFTA in spite of both Canada and Mexico supporting the agreement in its current form. Trump’s recent decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminium from Mexico and Canada was seen not only as an affront to Washington’s neighbours but as a clear sign that NAFTA is likely on its way out one way or another.
And then earlier today, Canada, the US and Mexico were jointly awarded hosting rights for the 2026 Football (Soccer) World Cup, the largest multi-match international sporting event apart from the Olympic Games and the first World Cup to be held in North America since the 1994 World Cup in US – the same year NAFTA was formed. This rare moment of North American cooperation comes at a time when Trump and Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau are engaged in an extended war of words, while Mexican public opinion of Trump, both in Mexico itself and among Mexicans living in the US has been consistently low.
Unless the US Constitution is amended, Donald Trump will not be President in 2026 as even if he wins re-election in 2020, he’ll be termed out in 2024. But a lot can happen between now and 2026 and it is highly likely that Trump will remain in power throughout that period.
It goes without saying that holding World Cup matches across three large countries is a huge inconvenience. The transport costs to fans who seek to attend multiple matches will be greatly prohibitive and because of the large geographical space covered by the tournament and unless the US relaxes its increasingly tourist unfriendly visa policies, this too could create a big headache for fans.
But what for fans might be a continent wide struggle to attempt and see as much football as possible without breaking the bank with expensive air travel, for NAFTA it might be a means of harmonising Donald Trump’s desire to boost the US economy with his otherwise hostile position on free trade.
As is the case with most major international sporting events, the World Cup often requires the building of new stadiums, the renovation of old stadiums, the construction of new roads and highways, the building of new hotels, shopping centres and restaurants etc. Because of this, Trump could be well placed to not only spearhead building projects (something he considers himself an expert on) in the United States but he could also promote US companies for the work they could do in building facilities and infrastructure in both Canada and Mexico.
Of course if NAFTA collapses prior to the beginning of preparations for the 2026 world cup, both Ottawa and Mexico City could make things difficult for US companies attempting to attain highly coveted construction contracts for new facilities. Thus, both Canada and Mexico have been presented with a rare opportunity to leverage their wealthier and otherwise more influential US partner in NAFTA. Canadian and Mexican leaders can now tell Trump that if he works to collapse NAFTA, Canada and Mexico might just look for more cost effective building partners from abroad, including from Trump’s chief economic rival, China.
The potential to promote American construction firms in Canada and Mexico ahead of a large international tournament may be too much for Trump to resist and as such, he may grudgingly allow NAFTA to remain in place in order to reap the benefits of easy access to the Canadian and Mexican markets in the run-up to 2026.
While the US under Donald Trump clearly has different goals than his NAFTA partners, the World Cup may just be the hat trick necessary to keep the NAFTA group of three playing for the same team.