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Obama should rename the SPP, set up two speeds on integration with Canada and Mexico, says new report

In what might be the first of the expected pre-SPP summit (August 9 and 10 in Guadalajara, Mexico) policy suggestions for North American relations, long-time Canada-U.S. commentator Chris Sands of the Hudson Institute has produced a new report for the Brookings Institution and Canadian International Council called “Toward a New Frontier: Improving the U.S.-Canadian Border.” Sands released the report in Toronto this week. Among other things, it calls on Obama to rename the Security and Prosperity Partnership, include labour, environmental and human rights groups on an equal footing to the private sector, and move on SPP priorities more slowly with Mexico than with Canada.

News report on the apparent Obama flip-flop on renegotiation

The document is sympathetic to Canadian concerns about the Department of Homeland Security treating the northern border as if it were the Mexican border and it is clearly written for U.S. decisionmakers, with the SPP playing a notable role in Sands’ recommendations.

The SPP “was built with elite support but in the absence of public or even stakeholder support,” he writes. “Despite evidence that NAFTA has been beneficial on balance to American business, workers, and consumers the agreement remains vilified by many as an unwarranted move to embrace globalization.”

Because of this and Obama’s campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA, the U.S. President “will most likely rename the SPP,” says Sands. “Yet, it should retain its mechanisms in some form.”

The report suggests two solutions. The first is to “Publicly adopt a two-speed approach to North America,” which moves ahead quickly where possibly on economic and security integration measures with Canada, while “When Mexico and the United States were able to meet the same preconditions in their bilateral relationship, no status offered to Canada or Canadians would be foreclosed to Mexico or Mexicans.”

The second solution recognizes that “the SPP must be rebranded to win any kind of consensus support” and that “The Obama administration recognizes this, and could take a few tactical steps to make the SPP (or its eventual successor) work better and win broader support.” These steps are:

1. Open the SPP to civil society: Sands recognizes, as he has several times in the past in other reports, that only having corporate input through the North American Competitiveness Council de-legitimizes the process. “The Obama administration should offer NACC equivalent status to the environmental, labor and human rights groups that have been among the strongest critics of the SPP, and yet have sought access rather than to condemn the effort.” (Not sure if that includes the Council of Canadians, but it’s a good first step!) It’s too bad Sands wants the ineffectual environment and labour commissions, created by former president Clinton to govern the respective side agreements, to convene these civil society meetings while presumably the corporate sector would remain a more direct presence at annual summits.

2. Sands argues that “the Obama administration should recognize that since the state and provincial governments of the United States, Mexico and Canada have constitutional responsibility over some areas of regulation and governance that affect the economy and the border, it makes sense to bring subnational governments into the SPP.”

Fortress North America back on the agenda?

The Brookings/CIC report also drags up the post-9/11 proposal for a common security perimeter that was dropped based on Canadian and American concerns around sovereignty. (Not that we didn’t give up much of it with the incremental policies in the Smart Border Action Plan!) Perimeter security includes screening goods and individual travellers at overseas ports before they are permitted to enter North America, which would involve harmonizing much more of Canada’s visa, immigration and refugee policies with the United States.

According to Sands: “In 2006, the Harper government offered to reconsider a perimeter security strategy, but by then it was clear that it would be necessary to wait for the new Obama administration to make progress on this idea. Secretary Napolitano has indicated publically her willingness to explore this possibility with her Canadian counterpart, but progress won’t come easily.”

Sands adds that “The Obama administration has begun exploring the perimeter strategy, but it will need to cultivate a consensus in order to convince Congress and the American people that this is a desirable vision for the future.”

Perimeter security and a NAFTA infrastructure commission that Sands proposes in his report also made it into a recent Standing Committee on International Trade Committee report on the Canada-U.S. border.

“Since the NAFTA came into effect, a series of north-south trade corridors have evolved. However, the existing road and rail infrastructure does not reflect this reality,” says the Canadian report, based on interviews the trade committee MPs had in Washington. “An infrastructure commission could work to overcome this problem.”

No doubt there will be other reports in the next few weeks with recommendations on where to take the SPP dialogue if it isn’t mortally wounded. That is if any other groups even know there’s an actual summit taking place in four weeks. The three NAFTA governments are certainly keeping information close to their chests. Sands’ new report is insightful but still leaves us hanging on whether Obama will live up to his promise to open up the North American dialogue to voices beyond the continent’s top-earning CEOs.