Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Three Amigos" or "Three Banditos?"

Controversy follows three-country accord into Canada

August 18, 2007

Kelly Patterson
CanWest News Service
Copyright 2007

To some, it is a "corporate coup d'etat," a conspiracy by big business to turn Canada into the 51st state by stealth. Others see it as a plot to destroy the U.S. by forcing it into a North American union with "socialist Canada" and "corrupt Mexico."

Its defenders hail it as a bold, visionary plan, the only way to give the three neighbours a fighting chance against the twin threats of global terrorism and robust economic rivals such as China.

Skeptics argue it's nothing but an eye-glazing bureaucratic boondoggle, with all the sex appeal of the phone book.

It is the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a sprawling effort to forge closer ties among the three nations in everything from anti-terrorism measures, to energy strategies, to food-safety and pesticide rules.

Launched two years ago by then-prime minister Paul Martin, President George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox at the so-called Three Amigos summit in Waco, Texas, the SPP grew out of concerns that security crackdowns would cripple cross-border trade.

With juggernauts such as China and India looming on the horizon, the three countries agreed they had to act fast to stay competitive. Now the SPP has grown into a mind-boggling array of some 300 initiatives, involving 19 teams of bureaucrats from all three countries.

Its stated mission is "to keep our borders closed to terrorism yet open to trade" by fostering "greater co-operation and information-sharing" in security protocols and economic areas such as product safety.

Little-known in Canada, the accord, if fully implemented, could affect almost every aspect of Canadian life, from what drugs you can access, to whether you can board a plane and even what ingredients go into your morning cornflakes.

While you may not have heard of the SPP, you may have heard about some of the controversies it has sparked: Canada's adoption of a no-fly list; negotiations to lower Canada's pesticide standards to U.S. levels; or fears the deal will lead to bulk-water exports.

Liberal party leader Stephane Dion charged Friday that, "under the veil of secrecy," Harper has let the Americans run roughshod over Canada, covertly using the SPP to impose a U.S. agenda on Canada. That's not what the Liberals intended when they signed the deal, which was meant to give Canada a stronger voice in Washington, not turn it into a pale "imitation" of the U.S., he says.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians says it is big business that is calling the shots, pushing aggressively for the harmonization -- and downgrading -- of everything from security norms to food standards, in a move that will lead to the "integration by stealth" of the three nations.

"Canadians would be shocked" if they knew the true scope of the SPP, says Barlow, whose Ottawa-based organization says it represents about 100,000 members.

Fringe groups such as the Canadian Action Party and the Minutemen in the U.S. go further, arguing the SPP is a plot to sweep all three nations into a North American union.

"Where are they getting this stuff?" says Thomas d'Aquino, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which helped launch the SPP.

"This is a very nitty-gritty, workaday initiative" to make trade safer and more efficient through such steps as expanding border crossings and information-sharing programs on plant and animal safety, he says.

Other SPP projects are no-brainers, such as plans to co-operate in fighting West Nile virus and flu pandemics.

As for fears of a North American union, "anyone who believes that is smoking something," says d'Aquino.

This weekend, the debate hits the headlines across the nation as the three heads of state and their advisers converge on Montebello, Que., 60 kilometres east of Ottawa, for the SPP's third annual summit.

Thousands of protesters are also expected to descend on the area, hoping to confront the "Three Banditos" about a deal they say is a secretive sellout to the cowboy capitalism and militarism of the superpower to Canada's south.

The road toward the SPP began with the shutdown of the Canada-U.S. border after the terrorist attacks on the U.S.

"It was a disaster for trade," recalls d'Aquino. "Suddenly, trucks which could whisk through the border in four to six minutes before 9/11 could take 18 hours."

Even now, security checks can slow border crossings to as long as three hours, he says, and businesses on both sides of the border live in fear of another emergency shutdown.

Cross-border trade is worth more than $1 billion a day and accounts for about 80 per cent of Canada's total exports. Border delays since 2001 have cost at least $14 billion to both economies, according to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Within weeks of the terrorist attacks, d'Aquino's group and the Liberal government of the day were pressing Washington to do something; by December, the two countries had hammered out the so-called Smart Border Declaration, a 30-point program to co-ordinate and streamline border security.

With border security suddenly at the top of the U.S. agenda, business and policy leaders on both sides of the 49th parallel saw a golden opportunity to hash out a host of other trade-related issues, such as energy supplies and regulatory differences that stop some goods at the border.

By 2005, the SPP was up and running. Building on the Smart Border deal, it had a sprawling agenda of roughly 300 projects running the gamut from joint security exercises to the study of migratory species.

"We always hoped from the outset we could broaden it beyond security," says Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor who worked as an adviser in the Privy Council Office when the SPP was launched. He adds that the SPP's architects hoped the "regular high-level meetings" would help "overcome bureaucratic inertia."

But they also helped big business and its government allies bypass both the public and Parliament to push through a host of controversial changes without debate or scrutiny, critics charge. They say the accord has enshrined and fast-tracked a longstanding effort to quietly harmonize Canadian programs with those of the U.S. in everything from military policy to food and drug standards.

"The SPP is an unacceptable, closed-door process with enormous implications for Canadians," says NDP trade critic Peter Julian.

Roland Paris scoffs at charges the SPP is a grand design. If anything, he says, it is a timid collection of piddling efforts that has become bogged down in bureaucratic red tape.

"This is not a political vision of the future of the continent. If it were, it would be worth the fuss."

Defenders of the SPP dismiss concerns about regulatory change as fear-mongering, saying the accord aims only to cut out minor, needless variations between the three countries.

The goal is to end the "tyranny of small differences" that can turn the border into a theatre of the absurd, says John Kirton, a University of Toronto professor and expert in the environmental effects of free trade.

For example, Canada's rules on the nutritional content of cornflakes are slightly different from those in the U.S., forcing American cereal exporters to make separate batches for Canada.

"So many Canadians drive across the border every day, and sometimes they eat American cornflakes. None of them have died," Kirton observes. "There's no scientific foundation for that difference in the rules."

If anything, the SPP could dramatically raise standards across North America, proponents say, because it heavily promotes information-sharing among the three countries.

Scientists would swap data on everything from car safety, to new chemicals, to consumer products and food safety, enabling regulators to better evaluate products and react more quickly to public health threats.

The SPP also includes projects with obvious benefits for all three nations, such as reducing sulphur in fuel and air pollution from ships, and co-ordinating efforts to curb plant and animal diseases.

It just makes sense to work closely with our neighbours on health and safety issues that affect the whole continent, says Kirton.

All three governments insist that the three nations remain sovereign under the SPP: If Canada doesn't like the way the U.S. does something, it can go its own way.

But NDP trade critic Julian is not so sure. He worries about the effect regulatory convergence will have in the future. If, for example, Canada wants to pass new rules to deal with greenhouse gases, it could mean "Canada would have to go to Washington and lobby for the kinds of standards and protections they want," he says.

One thing is certain: The fate of North America, and our place in it, has shot into the spotlight with growing public awareness of the SPP, rekindling a wrenching debate about Canada's ties to the superpower to the south.

As with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988, and NAFTA six years later, old foes such as Barlow and d'Aquino are once again facing off; charges of lies, secrecy and even treason are flying from fringe groups on both sides of the border.

Ottawa Citizen

© 2007 CanWest News Service:

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