No rush for closer ties with U.S., Mexico
David Crane
· David Crane
· James Daw
· David Olive
· Ellen Roseman
· Jennifer Wells
The overriding international challenge for Canada is how we manage our relationship with our North American partners, the United States and Mexico. It's an issue that's being discussed in political, governmental, business and think-tank circles around the countries — in other words, by our so-called elites — in an atmosphere that suggests some big choices have to be made and made fast.

All kinds of big schemes are being put on the table, from a common currency or adopting the U.S. dollar and a customs union or common market to an immigration and defence perimeter and harmonization of key policies on the environment, energy and many other areas, as well as the creation of shared political or intergovernmental institutions.

But as Marc Lortie, a key Canadian official dealing with North American issues told a seminar on North American integration in Toronto yesterday, greater integration is the issue of tomorrow. There's no appetite for it in the United States today or, really, in Canada.

Instead, as Lortie, assistant deputy minister for the Americas at our foreign affairs department told a Public Policy Forum gathering, Canada is very much focused on two other issues: How to better manage the Canada-U.S. relationship, and here the key issue is the border; and how to strengthen and broaden Canada's relationship with Mexico.

While Mexican President Vicente Fox has challenged Canada and the United States with his "audacious approach to North America" modelled in part on the European Union, including freer mobility of people, a common currency, a customs union, a shared passport and other such initiatives, a more pragmatic approach targeting specific areas of shared interest is more likely, such as the recently established working group on energy or border security agreements.

Canada has done a lot with the Americans, according to Lortie. "But we haven't pursued a customs union or things like that. It's not on the radar screen. What's on the radar screen is smooth movement across the border to facilitate the flow of goods."

For example, Canada has a far-reaching 30-point agreement on border issues, though there are still remaining issues on the movement of goods by rail.

Immigration is another important issue. The idea of a North American perimeter is very much "a conceptual approach," according to Lortie. A common immigration policy was a non-starter, he indicated. But co-operation outside of North America is happening. For example, if Canada turns someone down for a visa or from boarding a plane destined for Canada at a foreign airport, that information is shared with the United States and Mexico.

But the bigger issue of deeper North American integration lacks a political driver in either Canada or the United States to make anything happen soon. When Canada began to think about a free-trade agreement with the United States in 1985, there was a political driver — the need not for greater access to the U.S. market but to gain protection against growing U.S. protectionism.

Likewise, as Andres Rozental, now an international business executive but previously deputy minister of foreign affairs in Mexico, said, a key driver for Mexico to pursue the North American Free Trade Agreement was the rejection by the Europeans of a Mexican attempt to establish a special relationship with Europe. Mexico decided then that its future was in a North American community, Rozental said.

But while there is bold vision in Mexico for deep North American integration, there is no strong political will to pursue deep integration in the United States or Canada.

This doesn't mean nothing is happening. Yesterday, the three environment ministers met in Ottawa. Today, business leaders from the three countries meet in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush. And Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Bush and Fox, who met together last year at the time of the Quebec City summit, and again in Monterrey this spring where Fox outlined his ideas on North American integration, will meet again this year in Mexico City.

"This practical approach will manage the relationship for the time being," Lortie stressed yesterday. This means there is no need for Canada to feel it has to rush into hasty decisions on deep integration with the United States and Mexico.

Instead we have time to think through our national interest and determine what kind of future North American relationship we want. Whatever it is, Canadians clearly want to maintain their political independence, identity, culture and values as well.

David Crane is The Star's economics editor. His column appears Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].

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