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ATLANTA — Negotiators are closing in on a major 12-country trade agreement after clearing a logjam on automobiles, with the possibility of a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being announced as early as Saturday.

Details have filtered out to stakeholders gathered in Atlanta for negotiations and multiple groups described having heard the broad outlines of a Canada-U.S.-Mexico-Japan agreement on autos.

The agreement would likely allow significantly more car parts from cheaper foreign suppliers than under the North American Free Trade Agreement, but would be more multi-layered than the old NAFTA standard.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast confirmed he was optimistic the issue could be solved. But he said talks were still underway, and would not confirm figures and percentages.

“We are making good progress in trying to conclude those negotiations,” Fast told Canadian reporters Friday.

“There’s still some work left to be done. But we’re optimistic that issue can be solved and we’ll have an outcome that will support our Canadian auto sector and ensure its long-term viability in Canada.”

It now appears that the final hurdle to a deal, from a Canadian standpoint, is one of the country’s sectors most-sheltered from foreign competition: dairy. Only 10 per cent of what Canadians consume is produced outside the country, and the government is involved in a tug-of-war over what percentage to add.

“There’s still lots of work to be done,” Fast said of the dairy talks..

The Canadian government faces domestic pressure at the Atlanta meeting: representatives from dairy-producing provinces, who are not at the negotiating table. They are there pushing against any opening to foreign milk and cheese.

Fast says he’s met with 20 Canadian stakeholder groups, and has met with those provincial ministers in Atlanta.

Canada isn’t the only country with domestic pressure: the U.S. side has received a public letter from influential lawmakers urging it to walk away unless it can secure certain gains for American businesses.

One official from the biggest U.S. business lobby present at the talks, however, said it’s urgent to get a deal now — because she said failure in Atlanta could permanently doom the decade-long initiative.

Canada’s election is only the first of several over the coming year that could play havoc with attempts to ratify a deal.

Tami Overby of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce described dairy as crucial to New Zealand, which helped spearhead the TPP project years ago largely in the hope of increasing exports.

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

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