Harper Anxious to Sign New Border Pact With President Barack Obama

Update:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen speaking with Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in France last month, will be at the White House on Wednesday to sign a long-awaited border security agreement with the U.S. president.Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen speaking with Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in France last month, will be at the White House on Wednesday to sign a long-awaited border security agreement with the U.S. president.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen speaking with Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in France last month, will be at the White House on Wednesday to sign a long-awaited border security agreement with the U.S. president.  Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper desperately wants to sign a border pact referred to as the “beyond the border” initiative with U.S. President Barack Obama today.  Harper has been chomping on the bit to get this agreement signed for quite a while now. This new security arrangement would track the entry/exit of anyone leaving Canada/US or anyone coming into the US/Canada and this information will be constantly shared by security in each country.  For business people who don’t value their privacy, those who already rely upon and use a NEXUS card (NEXUS membership card belongs to the governments of Canada and the United States), this new North America permanent arrangement will only represent business as usual.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird calls this Security Perimeter Deal, which will cost a billion dollars ($200 million a year to be spent on harmonizing security and clearance between the United States and Canada) a good deal with a partner that we trade 500 billion a year with.  Baird calls the NEXUS card,  a “trusted traveller card”.  The NEXUS program calls for the traveller to have a “retina scan” and electronic fingerprint scan, while travelling. This deal would also include a “cargo clearance” pilot project to begin in 2013.

Canadians travelling into the US by sea or air, will be charged an additional $5.50 U.S. customs user fee effective November 5, 2011

This “new security perimeter deal” is an effort to harmonize security rules and customs regulations between the U.S and Canada with regard to items such as food regulation, motor vehicle standards and even over-the-counter drugs.  The question remains, will Canada adopt the U.S regulations or will both countries make attempts to strike a fair balance in this arrangement?  Most critics of the deal believe that Canada will capitulate to the U.S demands to make this deal work.  President Obama may have agreed to this, but the American President faces an election in 11 months.  Will the U.S. Congress agree to spend a billion dollars ($200 million a year over five (5) years) on this agreement, faced with the financial woes and challenges facing the American public?  Perhaps the $5.50 U.S customs user fee that 25 million Canadians (travelling by sea/air into the U.S) will have to pay in 2012 will make the pill easier to swallow for the U.S Congress.

The government hopes that this arrangement will generate billions of additional dollars into the economy.  Wait times at the border are already decreasing because our trade is diminishing. 45 million Canadians entered the United States in 2010. Less than a month ago, on November 11, 2011 the U.S. Congress stripped Canada of its exemption from the traveller’s tax (a $5.50 customs user fee) and now when Canadians’ want to travel to the U.S.A (by air or sea) it will cost them an additional $5.50 per person.  At 45 million Canadians travelling to the U.S. in 2010, that is sustantial amount of money being collected by our cousins to the south.

Critics of the security perimeter deal feel that it is the United States that are dictating all of the terms, while pushing a protectionistic “Buy America” agenda.  Some believe that America’s powerful food lobby is attempting to convince the Canadian government to begin to impose FDA standards in Canada.

An ambitious overhaul of Canada-U.S. relations that boosts border security and speeds trade?

Or a one-day White House wonder that is quickly overshadowed by the distractions of a U.S. election year and a president fighting to win a second term?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with President Barack Obama for a cursory 30 minutes on Wednesday to sign a border pact billed as the biggest change in trans-border relations since the two countries inked their free trade deal in 1988.

The “Beyond the Border” initiative is expected to boost information-sharing between law enforcement agencies, commit new spending on border infrastructure, reduce red tape for shippers, all in a bid to speed trade and travellers across a border that has become increasingly bogged down by security measures.

But for all the hype, experts say it will be years before its success can be truly measured.

Indeed, for it to succeed at all will require the ongoing support of the president and his administration. That might prove a tall order for Obama, who is already in campaign mode for a tough election less than a year away.

“It has the potential to be transformative,” said former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, who cautioned that campaign fever was already bogging things down.

“Most of this can be done administratively but even administratively we’re into that period where . . . things go slowly,” said Robertson, a former free trade negotiator who is now a senior strategic adviser at McKenna, Long & Aldridge.

Fen Hampson, director of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said such meetings are important but so, too, are tempered expectations.

“Every time we’ve gone for a smart border, it’s died a bureaucratic death,” Hampson said. “The Americans don’t see a problem and that’s our problem.”

Canada is barely on the radar screen in this town, even less so in an election year. Indeed, in a White House briefing Sunday with reporters on Obama’s week ahead, neither Harper’s visit nor the border pact was even raised.

Yet for Canada, the border deal is a big deal. It’s expected to dramatically expand Canada’s cooperation with U.S. security officials. That includes entry and exit records to track the movements of people who leave either country, a provision that’s already sparking privacy concerns.

But in return for giving in on that U.S. priority, Ottawa is hoping to get some cooperation on its own demand for smoother, more efficient access across the border.

That requires a high-level signal of support on the U.S. side. The Canadians rejected the offer of a signing ceremony involving U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Instead, they pressed for a high-profile event with the president to sign the border pact, hoping his words will send a signal throughout government that trade is a priority.

Harper and Obama will meet privately about 30 minutes before holding a joint media availability at the White House at 3 p.m.

In Obama, Canada may have a distracted champion.

“This is a president who is playing politics and is fighting for his political survival,” Hampson said.

Obama’s recent decision to put off approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline until after the 2012 election made clear his election-year focus on a domestic agenda.

“As we saw on Keystone, he’s going to be bowing to U.S. domestic interests and pressures and he’s not going to be making any big deal that is going to create flak for him,” Hampson said.

“It’s made worse by the fact that you have a very large, self-serving bureaucracy whose existence depends in part on building walls and digging moats on the north and the south border.”

One Canadian here familiar with border issues conceded the challenge of U.S. election-year politics but is more upbeat about the potential success of the border pact. Still, he said it needs to be “trim,” not laden with “bells and whistles” so it that can produce tangible results in a short period.

“It must be doable and practical,” said the official, who spoke on background. “The ‘doables’ will be essential because people will need to see results.”

Robertson is confident that in his efforts to spur the economy, Obama — who has promised to double U.S. exports by 2015 — can’t ignore the upsides of increased trade across an unclogged border.

“He wants jobs. There is a very rational . . . case that this will help improve the situation on both sides but particularly for the Americans,” Robertson said Tuesday.

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