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NEWS: Perimeter security action plan expected by September

The Globe and Mail‘s John Ibbitson reports, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama launched the Beyond the Border initiative in February, which aims to improve trade by streamlining and dismantling regulations, while moving toward a continental approach to border security. An action plan from the negotiating teams is expected by September. …In the Beyond the Border negotiations, Canada is seeking to convince the United States to ease restrictions thrown up in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In exchange, Mr. Harper has committed to a unified, continental approach to securing both countries’ borders, something the NDP and other critics warn could seriously compromise Canadian sovereignty.”

CANADIAN BUSINESS DEMANDS: “Executives representing the auto sector, agri-business, petroleum and other industries were essentially unanimous in what they want to see in the action plan when it is released. …The President’s Export Council, charged with helping Mr. Obama meet his pledge of doubling American exports over five years, met Tuesday for the first time outside the U.S. at a gathering hosted by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. The American officials got an earful from Canadian business leaders fed up with unstaffed checkpoints, arcane visa rules and decaying infrastructure that they said is hurting business, dampening growth and costing jobs.”

ENVIRONMENTAL HARMONIZATION: “Standardized environmental, quality and safety regulations would allow manufacturers to produce a single product for the entire North American market. But Mr. Jacobson warned that harmonizing regulations must not ‘lower the level of regulation to the lowest common denominator. If that’s what we try to do, there will be enormous kick-back, as there probably should be,’ he said. There would be kick-back on both sides of the border, agreed John Manley, who heads the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.”

CUSTOMS REGULATIONS: “A single set of custom regulations for both countries would go a long way to easing congestion, the executives agreed. And as one executive pointed out, empty customs booths at bridges and tunnels simply add to congestion and costs.”

TEMPORARY WORKERS: “One issue that has surfaced repeatedly is that of temporary workers. Often, companies need the expertise of a worker in one country when equipment breaks down or a new factory goes up in the other. But visa regulations can make that temporary assignment difficult or impossible to achieve. …While some changes will require legislation, (US ambassador David Jacobson said), ‘there’s a lot that we’ve decided we can do administratively to dramatically streamline the process.'”

PRE-CLEARANCE: “Along with easing the passage of temporary workers, pre-clearance is top of the list. Inspecting and sealing trucks at the factory, the cost of which major companies have said they are willing to bear, would allow trucks to then whisk across the border without inspection.”

AMERICAN BUSINESS DEMANDS: Maclean‘s reported in early-May that the US Department of Commerce, in their consultations, heard from, “Target Corp. …who bemoan conflicting regulations between the US and Canada in areas such as product standards, testing facilities, customs procedures and documentation; …the biotechnology industry association asked that both countries adopt ‘consistent science-based processes that would significantly decrease the time required for authorization of biotech crops and their products’; …several US agricultural groups asked for harmonization of the maximum permissible pesticide residue levels for produce; (and) the US Chamber of Commerce…suggested ‘examining wherever possible what can be done to align health care regulatory frameworks between the US and Canada for medical devices and pharmaceuticals’.”

NO-FLY LISTS: In mid-May, the Globe and Mail reported, “When it comes to the threat of terrorism, the Canadian border is a bigger problem than the Mexican one, a U.S. security official says. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said he is concerned that potential terrorists are exploiting Canadian loopholes to gain entry to the United States. …In his Senate testimony (on Tuesday in Washington), Mr. Bersin also complained that Canadian and U.S. officials do not share ‘No Fly’ lists.”

SECURITY: In mid-March, the Toronto Star editorial board wrote, “The perimeter proposal was hatched in secret and remains a murky work in progress. So far, Ottawa has served up only generalities.” Given this lack of clarity, they posed the following questions: 1- How, exactly, do Harper and Obama define a North American ‘perimeter?’ 2- How would sharing more data on travellers and goods coming into Canada and the U.S. from abroad materially ’streamline and decongest’ the border, when most traffic originates locally? 3- How would ‘improved intelligence and information sharing’ work? 4- What about ‘joint threat assessments?’ What information would we share? Who defines threats? The U.S. still obtusely regards Maher Arar as a threat, long after he was cleared. 5- How would an ‘integrated Canada-U.S. entry-exit system’ — potentially the most contentious part of this deal — work in practice? How would its exchange of ‘relevant’ data affect privacy? Would a Canadian flying from Toronto to Paris or Cairo, for example, be tracked in some U.S. database? How far would the sharing go? 6- When officials talk about ’screening’ travellers, what do they envisage, and what biometrics do they propose to rely on? The U.S. has a vast and not always reliable database of red-flagged people. And it’s not easy to get off the list. 7- How far would Ottawa go in stepping up ‘cross-border law enforcement operations?’ Does anyone envisage U.S. federal agents arresting suspects here?

NEXT STEPS: Ibbitson concludes, “The action plan will attempt to ease border congestion and improve continental security through recommendations that should mostly be achievable through changes to regulations. But the most substantial and far-reaching proposals may require parliamentary and congressional approval. With 2012 an election year in the U.S., trucks could continue to idle at the border for some time to come.”

The Globe and Mail report by John Ibbitson is at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/us-canada-work-on-smoothing-out-border-woes/article2079504/. The Maclean’s article by Luiza Ch. Savage is at http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/05/02/singing-in-harmony/.