Five issues the North American Leaders' Summit should address

Canada will host Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and U.S. President Barack Obama in Ottawa next week. Beyond climate change and trade, here’s what we hope will make the agenda. 

By: /
June 24, 2016
NALS
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (L) talks with U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prior to a group family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Bullit Marquez/Pool

Known colloquially as the “three amigos meeting,” the annual North American Leaders' Summit is the first high-level summit Justin Trudeau will host since taking office in November last year. Scheduled for June 29, the summit offers the Prime Minister a chance to build on his successful visit to the White House in March and to press the restart button on diplomatic relations with Mexico.

A cloud hung over the summit during former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure. Harper damaged diplomatic relations with Mexico over visa requirement imposed on Mexican citizens visiting Canada. Furthermore, the Conservatives’ insistence on Keystone XL’s approval put a dent on the Canada-U.S. relationship.  In fact, the meeting was allegedly pushed back last year at the request of Canada over Obama’s ambivalence regarding the infamous pipeline.

This year’s summit, however, is poised to be more beneficial for North American integration. True to his “sunny ways,” Prime Minister Trudeau has decided to move past Keystone’s approval and the government this week said it would lift the visa requirement effective Dec. 1 (albeit Ottawa has been dragging its feet on the latter). Overall, the positive state of relations in North America, and the synergy shared by its leaders, offers a rare chance to truly address the challenges facing the region.  

Beyond expected, heavy-weight issues such as trade, climate change and which North American leader is the biggest heartthrob (#TeamJustin), we’ve compiled a list of other issues that should make it to the agenda, and why.

1. Drug policy & security.

The tide is turning for drug policy in the Americas. A general consensus is forming regarding the merits of decriminalization and addressing narco-trafficking. Former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, among other leaders and researchers, have called for reform on drug policy, quantifying the last three decades of “the war on drugs” as a political, economic and public-health failure.

Mexico, Canada and the U.S. need coherent and complementary drug policies in accordance with new research. Already, Mexico is planning on decriminalizing marijuana, Canada is expected to put forward legislation for legalization within the next year and several U.S. States have already legalized its use. The White House has qualified drug use as a public health concern, and it is pushing legislation to address it. Collaboration and transfer of expertise on the matter would be beneficial for all parties.

Even though the shift in policy is a commendable development, it is naïve to think that the “drug problem” can be addressed by inward-looking actions alone. Similarly, cannabis is small part of the whole drug story. Criminal cartels and drug traffickers are extremely adept at reinventing themselves and consumers are flocking towards harder, more dangerous drugs. Concerned with falling profits and increased competition from legal marijuana businesses north of the border, Mexican cartels have shifted to producing and trafficking heroin and synthetic drugs. Heroin use and cases of overdose in the U.S. have spiked in the last five years. Mexican cartels and their associated gangs have been labelled as one of the biggest threats to U.S. National Security. The US Drug Enforcement Agency has identified Canada-based gangs with links to China and South-East Asia as major traffickers of MDMA and other synthetic drugs in North America.

Mexico, as a transit point and a producer of narcotics, and the U.S. and Canada, as consumers, are key nodes in the global drug trade network. Coordinated actions and policies among the three nations could put a substantial dent in this phenomenon. 

2. Regional stability & human rights.

Current humanitarian and political impasses in Venezuela, Central America and Haiti are destabilizing the region. These crises have impacts on North America, such as large influxes of migrants and refugees and heighten violent activity from criminal cartels.

Refugees coming from Central America, specially unaccompanied minors, pose serious security, legal and moral challenges for the U.S. and Mexico. Already, Mexico has been criticised for their treatment of Central American migrants crossing through its territory. A possible collapse in Venezuela would lead to instability for its neighbours and an influx of refugees heading north. Haiti’s failure to elect a president in a contested election last October has left the already battered island nation without a working central government. Add this to the very long list of Haiti’s problems: economic stagnation, a tanking currency, drought, cholera, the Zika virus, food shortages and a three-month-old strike by public-health workers. 

If Trudeau is serious about bringing Canada back to the world stage, the three amigos summit is the perfect forum to address pressing challenges in North America’s own backyard.  A good starting point is in Colombia, where a historic cease-fire announced Thursday may end a 60-year old insurgency war. Mexico has already offered to collaborate with Canada in a UN sanctioned peacekeeping mission to Colombia with the mandate to uphold and monitor the ceasefire.

Finally, there are many issues around human rights that extend beyond North America but which North American leaders could provide guidance, share policy experiences or facilitate collaboration with neighbouring countries — especially with regards to the rights of women and indigenous peoples. 

3. Corruption.

One of Peña Nieto’s flagship issues during his presidency has been tackling entrenched corruption in Mexico. 

It is in Canada’s economic and trade interests that corruption in Mexico is curved. Given the deeply entrenched levels of graft in Mexico, foreign investors have to incur extra-expenses in bribes and corruption. Beyond the ethically reprehensible actions of all parties (Canadian, Mexican and U.S.) involved in these dealing, from a purely economic/realist standpoint, a less corrupt Mexico is better for Canadian business.

This culture of corruption also extends to other places in the region. Brazil’s current woes were brought on by corruption scandals reaching the highest echelons of politics and business. A sound strategy to curve corruption in Mexico might resonate with others fighting for transparent politics in the region. 

4. Energy.

Energy policy, investment and collaboration in North America is a discussion Mexican officials are eager to have. The restructuring of the Mexican energy and gas sector in 2014 and the subsequent fall of global oil prices left a bitter taste for Peña Nieto. The Mexican president was counting on the opening up of the sector to private and foreign investors as one of the biggest drivers for economic growth and the fulfillment of one of his cornerstone campaign promises. However, as oil prices fell so did the hype surrounding the much-touted reforms.

Still, the reforms were enacted, and international investors bode their time for a more favourable price of oil. Skip two years ahead, and the barrel of oil is at around USD$50, a decent enough price. Now it is the time for Mexico and foreign investor to tap into the vast natural resource wealth Mexico is sitting on. 

Granted, the oil and natural gas sector doesn’t have the hype that it did during the Harper years, but Canada is still a resource heavy economy. Canadian companies with expertise in the energy sector can gain from access to the Mexican market. Mexico needs the expertise from the U.S. and Canada to develop its massive untapped resources. In the short and medium term, Canada’s economy stands to benefit from investments in Mexico’s energy sector.

Beyond the energy sector, Canada has knowledge and expertise on clean-technologies, innovations in manufacturing processes and in healthcare. Ontario, for example, has made heavy investments in entrepreneurship, innovation and start-ups like Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) and the MaRS Discovery District. The North America Leaders' Summit is the perfect place to showcase and promote Canada’s knowledge based-economy. 

5. Donald Trump.

The loud-thumping elephant in the room during the North American Summit will be republican candidate Donald Trump. Whilst a year ago the real-estate developer was but a mere blip in policy-makers’ radars, today the prospect of “President Trump” is a dreadful reality.  Considering that Peña Nieto and Justin Trudeau might have to eventually break bread with the U.S. demagogue, this year’s trilateral meeting is the last chance to prepare for a Trump presidency.

Trump’s outlandish xenophobic remarks against Mexicans and his delusional rhetoric regarding the U.S. border to the south have already taken its toll on North American relations. Furthermore, Trump’s protectionist and isolationist policies will harm Canada’s economy, if elected. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has slammed the republican presidential hopeful over his plans to “rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement.” PM Trudeau remains diplomatic regarding Trump’s candidacy, avoiding questions from the media on the matter. No one can condemn the Prime Minister for maintaining a neutral stance in public, as it would be poor statesmanship to meddle in the US election. However, behind closed doors, the PM needs to work with the Obama administration and Mexico in containing whatever damage Trump might inflict on the region.

The future for North American cooperation is somewhat uncertain. It is a pity that Peña Nieto, Obama and Trudeau will only coincide in this year’s North American Leaders' Summit in Ottawa. This summit offers a rare chance for our leaders to affect positive change for the region.