Commentary from Colin Robertson

Three Amigos, three tests for Trudeau

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
June 26, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces three tests during this week’s North American Leaders’ Summit. The first is to reset the relationship with Mexico. The second is to sustain with U.S. President Barack Obama the positive momentum of the recent Washington summit. The third, a challenge for all three leaders, is to demonstrate anew, post-Brexit, their collective commitment to continental economic integration.

Resetting the Mexican relationship is overdue. It will start when – as repeatedly promised during last year’s federal election campaign, in the mandate letters to cabinet ministers and in his initial meeting at the G20 with President Enrique Pena Nieto – Mr. Trudeau lifts visa restrictions for Mexicans visiting Canada.

Official relations have been in the doldrums since the Harper government imposed a visa in July, 2009. Mexicans had become our top refugee claimants. The visa stopped the claimants, although much of the problem was our own laxness, since remedied in subsequent legislation.

Canadian trade and investment in Mexico is under-appreciated. Mexico is our third-largest market with real potential for further growth. It’s our most popular tourist destination after the United States. But imposing the visa made the flow a one-way street, significantly curbing Mexican investment, tourism and study in Canada.

Once the visa is lifted, the Mexicans are keen to expand the relationship – including climate and energy, trade and investment, and people-to-people connections.

On the cultural front, Mr. Pena Nieto’s visit coincides, by intent, with an exhibition of the celebrated Mexican modernist painter Rufino Tamayo at the National Gallery of Canada.

We should reciprocate with a similar exhibition and link it to another in the successful series of innovation missions led by Governor-General David Johnston. We should also use such visits to increase by tenfold the number of exchange students studying in our two countries.

We worked closely and successfully with Mexico in persuading the U.S. to lift its iniquitous country-of-origin-labelling requirements on our beef and cattle trade. By standing together, we have a much better chance of rebuffing the protectionist headwinds generated in the current U.S. election campaign.

As a first step, our ambassadors and consuls in the U.S. should meet regularly to share their playbooks and to co-ordinate messaging about the value of North American economic integration. Few Americans appreciate that 25 per cent of what they buy from Canada and 40 per cent of what they purchase from Mexico was made in the United States.

Mr. Trudeau’s second test is to further consolidate with Mr. Obama measures to advance regulatory co-operation and to ease border congestion for people and goods. Much of this can have trilateral application. We both need to deliver on our respective legislation enabling pre-clearance for those travelling from Billy Bishop and Jean Lesage airports and by rail from Montreal and Vancouver, and to share no-fly lists.

Mr. Obama needs to give a final nudge – an executive order would be nice – to departments and agencies to fully implement the spirit of “cleared once, accepted twice” on goods entering our shared perimeter.

Significant differences” continue to divide Canadian and American negotiators on softwood lumber. A recent update by International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman effectively punts the Freddy Krueger of trade irritants down the road. The Trudeau government must avoid letting softwood lumber become the drag and focus of the relationship that the Keystone XL pipeline permit became for the Harper government.

Leaving the file with the USTR, probably the most Canada-unfriendly of U.S. agencies, is a recipe for litigation and confiscatory levies. Here again, Mr. Obama could give a helping push from the White House (as did George W. Bush in reaching the 2006 accord).

The third test for leaders Obama, Pena Nieto and Trudeau is to renew their nations’ commitment to closer economic and environmental integration.

The trilateral work of our Foreign, Energy and Trade ministers will be reinforced and advanced by the leaders. We can and should be beacons against the increasingly dark forces of xenophobia and protectionism of which Brexit is the most conspicuous manifestation. Ottawa promises to be a “green” summit – building, in continental fashion, on the achievements of the Paris climate accord.

We make things together, increasingly, in a sustainable fashion. This is the North American competitive advantage: energy independence and abundant resources; a lead in research and development; and, if we would only lift the mobility constraints, a talented labour pool.

North American integration demonstrates a different model from that of Europe. It is less centralized and less bureaucratic. It works for each of us, reinforcing rather than undermining our respective sovereignties. It’s a message that our leaders need to communicate at home and abroad, loudly and clearly, again and again.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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