Why Canada needs to show more love to Mexico

by Colin Robertson

 The Globe and Mail
September 30, 2014

In a world that is suddenly messy, there is a renewed premium on living in a good neighbourhood.

With the United States, we are friends, allies and partners, whether we like it or not and whether they know it or not.

With Mexico, we are too often an indifferent friend and partner, seemingly oblivious to Canadian trade and investment and the millions of Canadians who fly south for sun, sand and tequila.

The North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) underpins North American integration but, after 20 years, it needs renovation. Happily, fresh intellectual capital is coming to stimulate decision-making in time for next year’s North American Leaders’ meeting in Canada.

Canada’s Senate foreign affairs committee began hearings last week into North American integration.

The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations soon will publish its recommendations on managing the neighbourhood.

Next month, our trade ministers meet with business leadership in Toronto to chart paths to North American competitiveness.

Our U.S. relationship has been sustained by rules-based institutions that level the playing field. Security is guaranteed through NATO and NORAD. Trade is managed through our multiple trade agreements - notably our Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and NAFTA and now the Trans‑Pacific Partnership. Our shared environment is a notable success story, beginning with the Boundary Waters Treaty and the International Joint Commission.

Our leverage internationally comes from the fact that because we understand the United States better than anyone else, we can interpret the rest of the world to the U.S. and the U.S. to the rest of the world. Investment and trust in our foreign service is essential to maintaining those relationships.

We like to think we know everything about them and they like to think they know everything they need to know about us. We’re both wrong, but because of the asymmetries of trade and investment, they matter much more to us than we do to them. We need a Canadian representative in each U.S. state and, with jobs and security top of American minds, we need to remind them that their best customers also “have their back.”

U.S. President Barack Obama may be a lame duck but he can still get a lot done. The FTA was negotiated during the final two years of the Reagan administration. NAFTA was negotiated in the final years of the administration of George H.W. Bush. The Smart Border Accord morphed out of the Canada‑U.S. Partnership initiated in the Clinton administration’s final years.

Let’s quickly finish the first stage of the Beyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation initiatives. Make pre-clearance and common standards the norm rather than the exception. Monitor progress and establish accountability through bi-national and bi-regional associations including the Canadian American Business Council, Canadian-American Border Trade Alliance, Council of the Great Lakes Region and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. Apply the ‘lessons learned’ trilaterally.

Some think we would be better off dealing directly with the United States rather than including Mexico. If the rapidly increasing Canadian investment in mining, banking and manufacturing in Mexico and common interests vis-a-vis the United States on issues like border and transportation doesn’t persuade you, then consider two facts: With 122 million people, Mexico is already the United States’ second-largest trading partner and will eventually surpass our own trade with the U.S. And there are 51 million Americans with Latino roots, most of them Mexican, sitting in legislatures, Congress, cabinet and, one day, in the White House.

The reforms of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto open a window to business opportunities for us especially in Mexico’s ambitious infrastructure program: railroads, expanded metros, Mexico City’s new airport, over 10,000 kilometres of new pipelines and gas-fuelled electricity generation.

To do business, Mexicans need to get here. Our current visa process is long, arduous and humiliating. Fix it and bring North American trusted traveller programs into alignment.

Mexico should be our first development assistance priority focusing on sustaining the rule of law through police and judicial training.

Our private sector wants North American convergence on border facilitation and deregulation. The North American energy revolution will reindustrialize our countries and revitalize manufacturing. Our motto should be “Made in North America.”

Revitalize NAFTA’s commissions on the environment and labour. There doesn’t need to be any contradiction between sustainable resource development and economic growth. The EU model of skills and training, mutual recognition of education and labour credentials should also be a North American advantage. Canada should join the North American Development Bank and we should position it as the preferred financier for trans-border infrastructure.

Canada is a North American nation. We can’t change geography, nor would we want to. Let’s show the world what good neighbours - three democracies with 500 million people - can achieve.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP 

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