Then and Now: Closer Economic Integration with the US 1985 and 2011

From Vancouver Sun, From Yukon to Yucatan, cross-border compatibility makes a lot of sense Life would be easier, more cost-efficient

By Colin Robertson, Special To Postmedia News February 5, 2011

As we begin negotiations to take economic integration between Canada and the United States to the next level, it is worth reflecting on what has changed between now and the last time we embarked along this path.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the acceptance by Canadians that freer trade works to our advantage.

In 1984-85, opinion was sharply divided. Brian Mulroney had been elected by taking the traditional Conservative approach in opposing free trade before deciding to take the free-trade leap of faith. About a quarter of Canadians were favourable to the idea and the same number opposed.

The majority recognized that the status quo — increasing American protectionism coupled with structural economic deficiencies including deficits and unemployment — wasn’t serving our interests. There were doubts about the Americans’ willingness to truly level the playing field, about our ability to compete internationally, and about our capacity to preserve our independence.

The 1988 election nearly turned on a successful debating performance by John Turner on the sovereignty issue and the opposition of then-Ontario premier David Peterson.

After a bitter couple of years of adjustment, we proved that we can compete internationally. A decade of trade-driven prosperity persuaded the provincial premiers. The Liberals came around after a leadership change and some cosmetic changes in NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).

As a result of program reviews, deregulation and an attitudinal change to deficits, we are the poster child for prudent and responsible government. The domestic give and take that will be required this time is not likely to be nearly as politically contentious.

Importantly, we can count on the premiers, whose intervention with their governor counterparts made the difference in securing the reciprocity agreement on procurement last year.

We enjoyed perimeter defence from the Ogdensburg Declaration in 1940 until 9-11, when the curtain came down on the 49th Parallel. Extending the Norad (North American Aerospace Defence Command) model of sharing and pooling of information and intelligence to the already-close working relationship between law enforcement, migration and intelligence communities makes sense.

Collaborative neighbourhood watch is necessary to persuade the Americans to lift the curtain for legitimate goods and travellers. In return, we must have assured access for people and goods. The interruption of just-in-time delivery is already affecting investment decisions. Coupled with our petro-dollar, the Canadian advantages begin to diminish.

We’ll preserve our separate migration regimes, including different visa practises, but the Americans will insist on biometrics.

This is the recommendation of the 9-11 Commission — but we’ve already recognized its utility in the Smart Border Accord. Those who refuse to give this information will have to accept delays and interrogation. Our Charter of Rights does not apply to those crossing into the United States.

Regulatory compatibility makes a lot of sense. Mexico and Europe are ahead of us in negotiations with the Americans. We need to catch up because nowhere is the narcissism of difference more profound and unnecessary. Differences in food regulations, for example, means fortified Cheerios must be produced with slightly different compositions in each of our countries.

As U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson observes: “Not once have I felt less healthy.”

The difference in standards leads to separate production runs, less efficient trade and higher costs for producers and consumers. It’s time to take a blowtorch to these differences.

Our economic interests also argue for a truly cooperative approach to managing the arteries of our economic success. Let us adopt policies of open skies and open roads and take the example of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority to stewardship of our gateways, rail and road links, ports and pipelines and the grids that power our society.

For more than a century we’ve taken a continental approach to our commons — the International Joint Commission is an international model for sensible trans-boundary water management. We’ve built on this model and collaboratively cleaned up the Great Lakes and rid our skies of acid rain. Climate reform and management of the Arctic is the logical next step in environmental stewardship.

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s vision was of a “common market from the Yukon to the Yucatan.” His persuasiveness brought along both his administration and a divided Congress.

If Canadians have faith to go forward, can the same be said of the Americans? Harper can play a mean tune but will Obama sing along? The president knows his re-election will hinge on his capacity to create jobs.

America’s largest market, whether known or not, is Canada. If Obama is to double American exports, then Canada must figure in the equation.

The president told us that he loved us when he made his first trip to Ottawa. Now we will find out how much.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson is vice-president and senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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