WORLD

Even the best neighbours can get suspicious

The Montebello summit will test resolve for continental co-operation

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 13 2007
WORLD

Even the best neighbours can get suspicious

The Montebello summit will test resolve for continental co-operation

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 13 2007

Even the best neighbours can get suspicious

The Montebello summit will test resolve for continental co-operation

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

Americans are uneasy these days about all things foreign— from Middle Eastern oil to Mexican migrants to dog kibble from China. Daily headlines about “broken borders” and outsourcing suggest that foreigners want to either blow up their buildings or take their jobs. In the public imagination, border management has come to mean fences, and illegal immigration bedevils not just the Congress, but state capitals and town halls where local officials look for ways to deny costly services to undocumented Guatemalans, or evict Salvadorans who arrive in quiet suburbs with roosters in tow.

Between the global economy and the global jihad, it’s getting harder for Canada to simply hoist the “We’re not really foreigners” banner and get a pass. On its way out is our goodneighbourly exemption from having to show a passport at the border. And we’ve lost enough of the less visible perks, like exemptions from such red tape annoyances as agricultural inspection fees, that processing time for trucks crossing the border has tripled.

In the wake of 9/11, thenAmerican ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci proclaimed that henceforth,

“Security trumps trade.” In Washington, it still does.

Canadian diplomats here still fight the myth that some of the 9/11 terrorists came into the U.S. from Canada—only to be told,

“Well, they could have.”

When Stephen Harper welcomes George W. Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderón to the woodsy luxury of Château Montebello in Quebec later this month, it will be a test of the process that was supposed to change all that. When Bush, Paul Martin and Vicente Fox created the Security and Prosperity Partnership in Waco, Texas, in 2005, they said they wanted to balance security and trade, not sacrifice one for the other. One Canadian official calls it a “neighbourhood association, where the three countries are neighbours and we’re protecting our property values.” But so far their efforts, heavy on bureaucracy and closed-door meetings, are contributing to the atmosphere of distrust they were supposed to dispel.

For left-wing activists in Canada, the SPP has been a call to arms. They fear the co-oper-

ation agenda, in which leaders are seeking the advice of big business, will water down health and environmental protections, or give away resources. Now the American right is joining in. Jerome Corsi, the same conservative activist who helped sink John Kerry’s bid for the presidency by co-authoring the bestseller attacking his Vietnam record, has turned his sights on the three amigos. In his new book, The Late Great U.SA.: The Coming Merger with Mexico and Canada, Corsi claims that the SPP is part of an elaborate long-term strategy by multinational corporations to create a single continental market like the European Union for cheap goods from China that will be imported through ports in Mexico and delivered through a 10-lane NAFTA super-highway into the American heartland. “It’s a step-bystep process driven by elitists and multinational corporations to open borders and compromise the sovereignty of the various countries involved,” Corsi told Maclean’s. The American government denies any plans for a super-highway or a continental union, but the widening of some highways in Texas coupled with the ongoing trilateral meetings has been enough to push the theory from the black helicopter corners of the Internet onto the Republican presidential campaign trail.

In the politically important primary state

of New Hampshire, the union and the highway has become “one of the hottest topics among GOP audiences,” according to the Concord Monitor newspaper. The press secretary for top-tier Republican contender Mitt Romney says he gets more questions on it than anything except illegal immigration. The libertarian-leaning GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul tells audiences that the SPP meetings are part of an “integrated North American union—complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the union.” Rudy Giuliani was asked about the “road around America” at a campaign event, and told the questioner to vote for him, “because I don’t know about it!” At a Houston airport in July, another contender, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, was peppered with similar questions until the questioner was removed by security when she got to the part about 9/11 being “an inside job.” Another Republican presidential hopeful, Duncan Hunter, a California congressman, last week succeeded in passing an amendment to a transportation funding bill which, if passed by the Senate and signed by Bush, would block federal money for both a super-highway and for the transportation department to participate in SPP working groups. The vote was

SOME OF THE SAME BUSINESSES ACCUSED OF PULLING STRINGS BEHIND THE SCENES ARE QUESTIONING HOW MUCH PULL THEY ACTUALLY HAVE

a bipartisan and hardly fringy 362 to 63.

Some of the top business leaders on the continent are having to defend their role in a process aimed at keeping their commerce flowing. “I’ve had Canadians and Americans say to me, ‘You’re trying to circumvent elected representatives,’ ” says Ron Covais, president of the Americas for aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, and a member of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC), an elite advisory group set up by the leaders at their summit in Cancún last year. “No, I’m not. In no way is it the desire of the business community to impose on the countries’ sovereignty. We are not trying to create one big country. Nothing at all like that.”

In Cancún, Harper, Bush and Fox had asked the industry titans to whittle down a list of hundreds of proposals to a few dozen priorities. In March, the executives gave back a wish list focused on streamlining the border, harmonizing regulation, and integrating the energy sector. Their priorities for 2007 included a continental strategy for protecting critical infrastructure, and giving “legal protections”—presumably from penalties or lawsuits—to companies that conduct risk assessments and share their vulnerabilities with the government. Another recommendation is the creation of a committee that would look for ways to harmonize regulations in all three countries. Others included relaxing NAFTA rules to make it easier for finished

products to qualify for duty-free status, even if their component parts did not.

Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Wilson, dismisses the critics’ theories about SPP as “a lot of hype.” Wilson says that reviewing regulations on a continental basis, for example, makes sense—and that any changes will be done through legal channels in each country. “Business wants smart regulation. If a regulation was brought in 40 or 50 years ago, you have to ask, does it make sense today? Probably not. The processes of government are slow to change,” he told Maclean’s. The process is already yielding useful joint planning for future disasters and pandemics. As for the several-kilometre wide security perimeter around the Montebello summit, which has forced critics to cancel planned meetings in nearby towns, Wilson said, “There is a security element to this that unfortunately is a way of life.”

And now some of the same businesses accused of pulling the strings are questioning how much pull they actually have. Not only has the agenda for the Montebello summit been broadened away from a focus on SPP issues to other foreign policy topics such as deepening relations with Latin America, one of industry’s top priorities appears to be in limbo. Number 3 on their wish list is a pilot project for a pre-clearance customs facility at the border crossing between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y. The idea was to allow cargo to clear customs before it reached the border, much the same way that air passengers travelling to the U.S. from some Canadian airports can clear U.S. customs before getting on their flight. The two governments were negotiating final details when skeptical officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security blocked the deal. Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council in Washington, says there is frustration that an agency in one country was allowed to derail the project. “The fact that [DHS] was willing to walk away in the face of the recommendations from the NACC, in the face of the meeting with leaders, and the fact that the Bush administration was willing to blow it off caused a lot of people in the private sector to question whether it was worth even getting together,” Greenwood said. “The question in our mind, is whether Harper will raise this with Bush? If he doesn’t, then it makes you wonder about what productive things can come out of the get-together?” But even if it turns out that the business titans don’t get their way in Montebello, the skeptics are unlikely to declare case closed. In Corsi’s dystopia, how quickly Canadian-made auto parts can clear U.S. customs is beside the point. “In the future,” he predicts, “all the parts are going to be made in China.” Nl