NATIONAL

THE AMIGOS' SIESTA SUMMIT

The North American leaders defended NAFTA, but borders remain clogged up

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE May 5 2008
NATIONAL

THE AMIGOS' SIESTA SUMMIT

The North American leaders defended NAFTA, but borders remain clogged up

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE May 5 2008

THE AMIGOS' SIESTA SUMMIT

NATIONAL

The North American leaders defended NAFTA, but borders remain clogged up

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

Only about eight protesters bothered showing up outside the meeting of the three North American leaders in New Orleans on Tuesday. A few waved signs that read “traitors,” one objected to a joint continental currency (“No Amero!”), and one held a picture of poor ol’ Uncle Sam on a cross (“Stop crucifying my country”). Barricaded away from the press conference where the leaders were discussing ongoing work on the trilateral Security and Prosperity Partnership, the demonstrators were reduced to shouting at Canadian journalists. (“Globalist nutballs! Get out of my country! ”) Military vehicles brought in for crowd control stood idle.

At the meeting in Montebello, Que., last summer, some 2,000 protesters turned up to protest free trade and what they feared was the plotting of a “North American union.” Perhaps this time even the anarchists didn’t want to come and trash a city that took such a beating at the hands of Mother Nature. Or maybe they sent a handful to just go through the motions—like the leaders.

Inside the ornate antebellum Gallier Hall, where Mardi Gras royalty come to watch the annual parades, the leaders held an hourlong press conference but made little news. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón took turns affirming the importance of NAFTA against protectionist noises coming from the Democratic presidential candidates. “This is not the time to even think about amending it or cancelling it,” said Calderón. Harper used the occasion to point out, in front of the assembled White House press corps, that Canada was the biggest supplier of energy to the U.S. and that

in any renegotiation, “I think quite frankly, you know, we would be in an even stronger position now than we were 20 years ago.” His barely veiled threat went mostly ignored by the U.S. media, who focused instead on Bush’s verbal spanking of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for stalling a congressional vote on another trade agreement with a key South American ally. “Actually, my biggest concern on trade right now is with Colombia,” he said.

Inside the meetings, the North American Competitiveness Council, a group of business leaders who had been invited by the three amigos to advise them on making North America more competitive, made its pitches at a meeting that ran over an hour. The CEOs wanted a strong public affirmation of the greatness of NAFTA, and they got it. Expectations were so low that some of the business folks didn’t even bother attending this year. “Nothing big is coming out of this meeting,” said one. “Skipped this one... things bogged down,” explained another.

Their biggest issue has been the border: how to streamline crossings for people and cargo in a security-heavy environment of multiplying fees, regulations and inspections. Business groups’ biggest demands remain unfulfilled, such as pre-clearance facilities to clear trucks through customs before they reach the physical border. “The No. 1 specific concern that came from the Canadians and the Mexicans was the border, and socalled thickening of the border,” Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, who attended the meetings, told Maclean’s.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in an interview after the summit that the severity of the concerns raised by the Canadians took Bush by surprise. “President Bush was very interested to hear the concerns. He was not aware of the concern about the thickening of the border to the degree we are, and he gave instructions to [Homeland Security]

Secretary [Michael] Chertoff to work closely with me to work on developing areas [where cargo] can be pre-cleared before they get [to the land border].”

Day said that incremental progress was made in two main areas. For one thing, a detailed plan on when and how to reopen borders in the aftermath of a major catastrophe inched forward. In Montebello, officials had been asked to draw up such “business resumption” plans. This time, they were asked to finalize them and to conduct a practice exercise before the end of the year.

The second area of progress was instructions from both leaders to harmonize safety standards for automobiles and food sold in all three countries. “Health and safety standards are set by sovereign countries, but they are quite close when you look at food and auto parts. It’s a matter of not reducing standards, but of harmonizing,” said Day. Officials were told to tackle this task “in an aggressive way,” he said. “The quicker and the faster we can achieve higher harmonization or mutual recognition agreements, they will make us more competitive,” said Tom d’Aquino.

AFTER YEARS OF EFFORT,

IT IS NOW BECOMING EVIDENT THAT THE ODDS IN WASHINGTON ARE STACKED AGAINST BORDER FACILITATION

Harper also told reporters he emphasized the importance of moving ahead on a new border crossing between Windsor and Detroit during his meetings with Bush. “The Prime Minister really laid out clearly the Canadian position and concern that we need an alternate route,” confirmed Day. “And the President made a commitment to take that on.” But David Bradley, the CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, cautioned that he’s heard such vague promises before. “I have been predicting that it will be 30 years before we see a second crossing at Windsor-Detroit, and I am hoping I am proven wrong, but after all the talk and study of the past several years, the reality is that you can take a truck from Toronto to Miami and you will still go through 17 stoplights; 16 of them are in Windsor,” he told Maclean’s.

The business groups also pushed the leaders to coordinate their policies on climate change. “We said a degree of commonality and policy coordination on climate change is imperative,” said d’Aquino. They also talked up carbon sequestration as a technology worthy of promotion by both governments. But most of these issues continue to be discussed without major progress. “More needs to be done urgently to fix the problems at the Canada-U.S. border. It continues to grow harder to cross and more costly to cross,” said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “Most businesses expect the border to be worse, not better, five years from now.”

After three years of glacial efforts, it is now becoming evident that the odds in Washington are simply stacked against border facilitation. All the political incentives are lined up in precisely the opposite direction: to barricade it, whether against terrorists or illegal immigrants. The share of American GDP generated by cross-border trade is much lower than in Canada, and the economic argument holds less weight. As well, the issue is in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security, whose responsibility is for security, not for trade. “You have a machine that seems to be running itself,” observes Beatty.

Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, and other critics have called for more openness and consultation with citizens and groups other than business as a regulation harmonization goes forward. But in New Orleans, the leaders gave no indication they would involve other groups. In a briefing prior to the summit, a senior Canadian official said mechanisms for seeking public comment already exist in the regulatory processes of the three individual countries.

Meanwhile, the far-right critics of the SPP, who fear a coming “union” of the three countries, had to look a bit harder for something to get alarmed about. They found it: the trilateral summit changed its name. Rather than calling it the “SPP Summit,” author Jerome Corsi wrote on WorldNetDaily, “the White House is engaged in a public relations campaign to reposition the meeting away from the controversial issue of continental integration. Billed instead as a ‘North American Leaders Summit,’ the meeting appears designed to create photo opportunities showing President Bush with Mexico’s President Felipe Caldron [sic] and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper rather than emphasize the trilateral co-operation that was the centrepiece of previous SPP summit meetings.”

Perhaps. Or, more likely, there wasn’t that much trilateral co-operation to emphasize. M