Canada-U.S. Border Deal: From Aspiration to Action?

Paris asks whether Obama will stick with Perimeter, or it will see the same fate as many deals before it.
By: /
December 8, 2011
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Yesterday, Canada and the United States announced a security and economic cooperation plan similar in style and substance to the 2005 Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). It’s worth recalling, therefore, that the SPP died of neglect shortly after it was launched. Unless political champions at the highest levels in both countries commit to driving today’s agenda of cooperation forward – month after month, year after year – this new initiative will likely suffer the same fate.

The new agreement, like the SPP, sets out a menu of policy objectives to be jointly pursued over the coming years. They broadly aim to reduce unnecessary regulatory differences between Canada and the U.S. and other physical and regulatory barriers to the more efficient movement of goods and people between the two countries, while also shifting some security screening to the “perimeter” of the continent. Broadly speaking, these were the objectives of the SPP in 2005, and they are the objectives of the initiative announced today.

As before, moreover, there is no “Big Bang” of sudden continental integration, as some had feared or hoped. We won’t have open borders with the U.S. similar to those between European countries within the Schengen zone, nor will we be eliminating differences in the two countries’ external tariff rates and creating a North American customs union. Rather, what’s now being proposed is incremental and modest. Whether you love or hate these proposals, they will happen slowly.



Or perhaps they won’t happen at all. The old SPP plan included “Ministerial-led working groups” as well as semi-annual reports to be issued by the security, industry and foreign affairs ministers (or their equivalents) from all three countries. The model for that arrangement, in turn, was the Canada-U.S. Smart Border Accord, which had been created immediately after 9/11 and was led by then-Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and his American counterpart, Tom Ridge. It was the personal attention and energy of these two cabinet officials which drove the progress of the Smart Border Accord action plan.

But that was a different time. In the wake of 9/11 there was a sense of urgency on both sides of the border that began to dissipate well before 2005. Partly as a result, the ministers who were nominally responsible for overseeing and implementing the SPP lost interest in the mundane but vital details of the workplans, which languished after running into the inevitable bureaucratic obstacles.

The agenda announced today will run into bureaucratic obstacles, too. Many of its specific objectives are still aspirational – such as negotiating a “preclearance agreement” that would “provide the legal framework and reciprocal authorities necessary” for inspections at the Canada-U.S. land border to take place on each other’s territory (just as they do in airports today when we clear U.S. customs before getting on a flight to the U.S.). These legal issues are extraordinarily complex, and have stymied efforts to negotiate such a deal for years. Nevertheless, the new cooperation plan states that a land preclearance agreement will be reached by December 2012.

The chances of meeting this target – or, for that matter, achieving breakthroughs on other difficult issues in the bilateral relationship – will depend in large part on the willingness of both the Prime Minister and the President to devote sustained attention and political capital to these objectives. Yet we are already less than 12 months away from the next U.S. presidential election. Let’s just say there will be many other demands on Mr. Obama’s attention over the coming year.

The broad vision outlined in this bilateral cooperation agenda is in both countries’ interests to pursue, but doing so will require both the expression of intention and a sustained political effort to turn aspiration into action. It remains to be seen whether today’s leaders can deliver the latter part of that formula.

Photo courtesy Reuters.