Op-Ed: The North American relationship is stale

By Laura MacDonald, Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2014

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in Mexico for the seventh North American leaders’ summit and bilateral meetings. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) marks its 20th birthday this year, but reasons for celebrating are scarce since relations among the three partners are currently rocky. As host of this summit, Mexico wants to reboot the North American relationship, which it feels has failed to live up to its promises.

Harper may be an unpopular guest at the fiesta, as Canada is seen as unsympathetic to Mexico’s interests. As well, his government is in high-profile disputes with the two other countries: the Keystone pipeline issue with the United States and Mexico’s demand that Canada revoke its visa requirement for Mexicans travelling to Canada.

The proclaimed goals of the summit are to discuss North American economic competitiveness, energy and the environment, and defence and security cooperation, as well as a range of regional and global security issues. The last summit led to increased cooperation among the three countries on Central American security issues but didn’t address a multitude of cross-border issues that affect the well being of the region’s peoples.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), launched in 2005, was supposed to remove regulatory barriers that remained in place between the three countries as well as address U.S. security concerns after Sept. 11, 2001. President Barack Obama cancelled the SPP in 2010, since little progress had been achieved and the process had attracted outrage in the U.S. from a range of groups alarmed by its secretive nature.

Throughout NAFTA’s 20-year history, Canada has been less than enthusiastic about Mexican participation in the alliance, fearing that Mexico will slow down Canada’s progress on issues like border control and security cooperation.

Canada pushed instead for a bilateral Canada-U.S. perimeter security agreement. The exclusion of Mexico from these perimeter discussions has left the North American leaders’ summit with little of substance to discuss.

It is likely that Mexico’s agenda will dominate this summit, since it is being held on Mexican territory.

Over the long term, Mexico’s failure to reap the benefits promised from the North American Free Trade Agreement has held back the region as a whole. The country’s trade and investment with the United States grew dramatically after the signing of NAFTA, and economic ties with Canada also expanded.

However, Mexico’s GDP growth levels have been low, peasants were hard hit by agricultural liberalization, many Mexicans lost jobs in uncompetitive industries, and successive administrations failed to adopt fiscal and institutional reforms that might significantly reduce levels of poverty and eliminate endemic corruption.

Since his election, Enrique Peña Nieto has tried to improve conditions by promoting a series of policies such as educational reform, fiscal reform to increase the tax rate of Mexicans (currently one of the lowest rates in the Americas), and opening up the energy sector to foreign investors. It is still unclear whether his reforms in the security sector will result in a substantial decline in drug-related violence.

Meanwhile, Canada’s relationship with Mexico has deteriorated since the 2009 decision to impose a visa on Mexicans travelling to Canada, to reduce the flow of Mexicans Canada perceives as illegitimate refugee claimants. The visa requirement has not been removed despite the fact that the number of Mexican refugee claimants has plummeted since Canada adopted reforms in 2012. The Mexican ambassador to Canada has said Peña Nieto will postpone his scheduled trip to Canada if the issue isn’t resolved.

Canada’s relationship with the United States is also strained since Obama has failed to endorse the proposed Keystone pipeline between Canada and the U.S. Obama has little incentive to bow to Canadian demands for a quick response. U.S.-Mexican relations are also tense, however, since Obama has failed to deliver the immigration reform that Mexico seeks.

In this context, a host of truly transnational challenges remain. Issues like economic competitiveness, border management, environmental problems, North American climate change, threats to biodiversity, academic cooperation, and the security crisis in Mexico demand greater cooperation. Nevertheless, the accumulated resentments and disputes between the three partners make substantial progress appear elusive.

Laura Macdonald is a professor of political science and Director of the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University. She is also a member of the McLeod group.