A New Perimeter to Expand NAFTA?

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen HarperThe continentalists are out of the cupboard: The United States and Canada are taking another crack at North American integration, this time without Mexico. Civil servants are dusting off their policy playbooks, business lobbyists are flexing their muscles, and politicians are sexing up their communications strategies. Their opponents, activists fighting for a new economic model, are preparing a counteroffensive that we hope will succeed — again.

Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper jointly announced they would be restarting NAFTA-plus regulatory and security cooperation discussions, labeling the talks “Beyond the Border.” It marked the rebirth of the failed Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) — leaving the increasingly complicated relation between the United States and Mexico on its own. Controversially, Canada is now talking about a “perimeter” approach for North American security — a term that past Liberal governments had avoided using. The Beyond the Border working group, made up of senior foreign affairs and public safety bureaucrats, has already finished consulting business and corporate lobby groups — with only token labor outreach. The two governments are planning to release a Beyond the Border action plan this summer.

The perimeter plan will likely have the same economic and security flaws as the SPP and other failed NAFTA expansion packs. Efforts to more closely integrate the U.S. and Canadian economies and surveillance infrastructures will not create jobs or actually make anyone safer. Beyond the Border does, however, pose threats to our privacy, democratic sovereignty, and economic options for the future. Canada and the United States have agreed to deploy “common technical standards for the collection, transmission, and matching of biometrics that enable the sharing of information on travelers in real time.” But the privacy implications of using biometrics in travel documents, not to mention outstanding questions of their efficacy, fuel ongoing debates on both sides of the border.

Integrated cross-border law enforcement programs that increase the amount of personal information that the U.S. and Canadian governments share bring back memories in Canada of Maher Arar. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was deported from New York to Syria based on Canadian intelligence shared with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He was imprisoned and tortured for a year before being let go without charge, and later successfully sued the Canadian government for $10 million. Several other Canadians, including Abdullah Almalki, suffered a similar fate in the post-9/11 panic and are currently seeking financial compensation.

As these examples attest, the security agenda in the Beyond the Border action plan will affect Canada more than the United States. While Canada has adopted security measures in lockstep with DHS since 9/11 (including the 2001 Anti Terrorism Act, the 2007 Canadian No Fly list, and recent legislation bringing Canadian norms in line with U.S. Secure Flight rules), limits on Internet and telephone surveillance in Canada, as well as laws prohibiting the fingerprinting of anyone not charged with a crime, have made total integration of security policies with the U.S. difficult. With the Obama-Harper perimeter deal, the last remaining legislative hurdles, which would require changes to Canada’s civil liberties laws, will likely be eliminated.

Economic Integration

Of course, Beyond the Border is about more than security. A “Trade Facilitation, Economic Growth and Jobs” agenda, similar in most details to the SPP’s “Prosperity Agenda,” will attempt to ease the flow of goods and those that are identified as “legitimate” travelers across borders.

Obama and Harper have created a Regulatory Cooperation Council tasked with finding ways to “reduce and prevent regulatory barriers to cross-border trade, because simplifying rules and reducing red tape lead to lower costs for business and consumers, and ultimately to more jobs.” Based on statements about the perimeter deal from the U.S. and Canadian Chambers of Commerce, two of the bigger picture objectives on the economic front are the adoption in Canada of U.S. copyright norms and increased powers for customs agents to seize suspected counterfeit goods based on industry suspicions of infringement. Additionally, expedited approval of a pipeline network carrying Canadian crude oil from tar sands to refineries in the United States is in the works.

The latter development will not go over smoothly in either country due to increasingly vocal opposition to new pipelines, such as the Keystone XL route that TransCanada wants to build from Canada‘s southern border to Oklahoma and Texas. The State Department is under intense pressure from both environmental and indigenous groups and industry over the pipeline proposal. Anti-pipeline groups will not sit idly as bureaucrats’ greenlight new cross-border energy projects that are given only cursory environmental assessments. The situation is similar in Canada with respect to copyright and intellectual property reform — pending Canadian legislation on the subject has been delayed for almost a decade. The latest incarnation, which the ruling Conservatives will likely pass this fall, met most but not all U.S. industry demands. Receiving any more concessions from Canadian Internet users and generic drug manufacturers will not be easy.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, acknowledging “it’s going to be hard” to convince Canadians about the perimeter deal, told a business crowd in Vancouver June 10, “One of the reasons that it’s so important that the president and the prime minister are leading this effort, is that when somebody says ‘you don’t understand, this is not how we do it’, then we can say `what is it about the views of the president or the prime minister that you don’t understand?’” Clearly the space for dissenting opinions will be limited. It’s happened before.

Ten years ago, North American business lobby groups including the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and Council on Foreign Relations entered into a binational pact to endorse transnational military exercises and surveillance systems, no-fly lists, and other ineffective but intrusive security measures. In return for corporate cooperation on security policy, promises were made for open borders, a common and laxer regulatory environment, and a dominant role for big business in the creation of a North American economic policy that went beyond the already exhausted NAFTA.

The plan took many forms: the 2001 and 2002 Smart Border Declarations with Canada and Mexico, a 2005 trilateral report from the Council on Foreign Relations called “Building a North American Community,” and the now reviled SPP. By 2006, the North American Competitiveness Council, a handpicked group of 30 CEOs, was the only non-governmental advisory group in the process. The NAFTA expansion pack was corporatist, its successes modest, and its failures abundant. No one can legitimately claim it has made North America safer or more prosperous. In February, David Wilkins, Bush’s former ambassador to Ottawa, argued in favor of the programs, claiming integration measures reduced wait times at the border. He went on to call recent complaints of a “thick” border exaggerated.

Challenges from Overseas

Both the United States and Canada continue to lose manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors that can offer lower wages and laxer regulatory environments. What manufacturing or high-value industry still exists in Canada is increasingly foreign-owned. Investors such as Brazil’s Vale or U.S. Steel have turned their backs on employment promises. Buy American policies in the United States face increasing criticism, and Japan, the EU, and the United States are challenging Ontario’s landmark green energy policy as trade distorting at the WTO. Despite this crisis, neo-liberal institutions put in place to deepen economic globalization are forestalling any viable solution.

Our economic systems are grinding to a halt. But rather than invest in domestic jobs, U.S. and Canadian-based corporations are sitting on record profits while workers sit at home. Clearly the border is not the major problem here. Something is wrong with the region’s brand of capitalism.

The Beyond the Border working group may postpone collapse by allowing temporary consolidation across North American borders. Wrapping North America in a security perimeter blanket may help quell popular resistance to the devastating status quo for average citizens. Surveillance of environmental and anti-capitalist movements will become ubiquitous. But it will not silence calls for a better economic and social model.

Like many Canadians, I was relieved when President Obama campaigned on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA to make it work for workers and the environment. “Starting my first year in office, I will convene annual meetings with Mr. Calderón and the prime minister of Canada. Unlike similar summits under President Bush, these will be conducted with a level of transparency that represents the close ties among our three countries,” he said. “We will seek the active and open involvement of citizens, labor, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress.”

There is no evidence this is the path Obama is taking with his Canadian counterpart Harper. The Beyond the Border working group is operating largely in a vacuum, with occasional feedback from big business lobbies and the security-industrial complex. The public will not see details of the perimeter security plan until the end of the summer. Accountability and democracy on both sides of the border are needed, as we strive together for an alternative to North American integration that puts people and a just society before profits and the surveillance state.

Stuart Trew is a trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.