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Report back on the fact-finding trip to Washington, D.C.

Last week I spent two days in Washington, D.C. for meetings with U.S. allies and other organizations on the Beyond the Border perimeter deal. I was there with John Foster representing Common Frontiers. Together we met with the Institute for Policy Studies, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Hudson Institute, AFL-CIO, a staffer in Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur’s office, Friends of the Earth (U.S.), the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and the Global Trade Watch team at Public Citizen. Separately, John met with the Can-Am Business Council, Canadian embassy staff and a staffer in Senator Sherrod Brown’s office, and I met with the American Civil Liberties Union and Privacy International – U.S.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but here are a few of the things we learned during our valuable exchanges in Washington, as well as from a briefing by a Canadian embassy official last Thursday set up by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

1. The perimeter deal is a bigger deal for Canada: On the privacy side, the U.S. blazed a trail toward the security state which Canada is slowly trudging (too slow for U.S. interests, which is why we are back in security integration talks with Obama). The U.S. National Security Agency currently spies on all satellite and broadband communications. Obama is interpreting PATRIOT ACT and other terrorism legislation more broadly than even Bush did, according to the ACLU. Barry Steinhardt, a senior advisor with Privacy International nonetheless called the perimeter deal “an important privacy issue for North America.” He said there are many loopholes in U.S. privacy legislation which should give Canadians pause before accepting assurances from Harper or Obama that personal data will be safe, and surveillance minimal. On the trade side, all attention in the U.S. is focused on bilateral free trade agreements, which Obama is desperately trying to push through Congress and the Senate (Colombia, Panama, South Korea, and eventually the TransPacific Partnership).

2. NAFTA is still hotly debated in the U.S.: Even though groups are occupied with bilaterals it’s on the grounds that they reproduce the failed NAFTA model, which kills jobs at home. There is a strong and unified progressive/labour challenge to Obama’s export-led growth strategy based on antipathy or opposition to NAFTA among Democrats and Republicans. Groups we met expressed surprise that this kind of dialogue doesn’t happen in Canada where the consensus in the media is that NAFTA has been overwhelmingly good for Canada.

3. The border and regulatory cooperation discussions are separate: From a briefing with DFAIT, organized by the CCPA last Thursday, we know that Beyond the Border is about the border–data sharing, harmonized risk assessments, trade facilitation, customs procedures, etc–and the Regulatory Cooperation Council is doing its own thing. We don’t know what that thing is but the council, made up of Canadian and U.S. bureaucrats, has a very broad mandate. It will be talking about the size of trucks on North American highways, but probably also intellectual property rules, product safety, environmental standards, etc. Where in Canada the chief negotiators on both fronts answer to the Prime Ministers Office, their U.S. counterparts are just senior staff people in the relevant departments. This gives a good sense of the relative priority of the border talks in both countries.

4. Obama wants our data but sees election gains in economic pact: Obama is just coming around to the economic argument made by Canada, that finding efficiencies at the border will create jobs in the U.S. and Canada. This is according to Chris Sands at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank which is generally supportive of integration talks. Obama sees election gains in a deal with Canada that he can say creates jobs in trade-related or integrated industries, Sands told us. But security is the main interest in Washington. Several U.S. committees have recently raised alarms about risk north of the border. The U.S. proposal in the Beyond the Border action plan is to exchange entry data (information on who enters Canada across land, sea and air borders) to save costs (i.e. rather than both countries putting into place entry-exit systems). Harper is apparently saying the federal government needs something good in return.

5. The security-economy trade-off is out of whack: According to the DFAIT official who briefed us last Thursday but who couldn’t go into specifics, there has to be a strong level of ambition on the economic front in order to reach an agreement on anything on the security front. Canada wants pre-clearance of goods and people, better trusted traveller and trusted shipper systems (where the U.S. actually trusts Canadian people and goods), fewer fees at the border, no requirements on flights that baggage be checked twice at the airline’s expense, etc. It’s small potatoes. It’s our privacy and data for very weak promises of a thinner border.

6. Harper could but likely won’t walk away from a bad deal: There are apparently hard lines on privacy/security that the Canadian government won’t cross. For example, according to Sands, risk in the U.S. is based on where you were born. But the Charter in Canada protects people against discrimination based on nationality, race, etc. On joint projects in the military realm, the U.S. wants to know exactly who is working in Canadian defence/security firms doing joint work with U.S. firms. Canada has offered to do thorough federal security checks of workers but the fear is they will have to hold back nationality data, which the U.S. won’t accept. Harper could walk away from a deal that goes too far on privacy without offering gains on the economy… but will he? Harper has signed many a bad deal in his five years (Softwood lumber, Can-U.S. procurement agreement) and is negotiating others like the lopsided CETA with the EU.

7. Tar sands, solidarity across borders are important: At a meeting organized by IPS, we heard that tar sands, mountaintop removal, and movement building across borders were all important to U.S. groups working on trade and environmental issues. We discussed with IPS how Common Frontiers might work with Peter Julian (NDP Industry Critic), Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur and Mexican legislators on setting up another tri-national civil society/legislators meeting to discuss fair trade efforts across the continent. These meetings stopped about the same time that Obama cancelled the Security and Prosperity Partnership discussions in August 2009. The politics in Washington have changed, so the meetings may have to also, but they provided a valuable space for people to work with their politicians to develop trade proposals that truly benefited workers, migrants, and environmental policy.

I’m sure we learned more than that. All in all a valuable opportunity to re-connect with progressive opponents to deep integration while making new connections on privacy and surveillance, and emerging issues such as tar sands exports to the U.S. We expect the Beyond the Border Action Plan to be finished and made public by September and are considering another trip to Washington around that time, as well as a post-summer push in Canada to democratize the debate on North American relations.