Next Threat to Trade

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Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette

When President Obama visits Ottawa on February 19, Prime Minister Harper will no doubt have a substantial list of issues to raise. One of these will obviously be Canadian concern over the impact the “buy U.S.” provision of the American stimulus package could have on our economy.

We should, however, be equally worried about the tightening up of our common border since this could have even more serious implications for our well-being if it interferes with our exports to the U.S.

Lat week the Obama’s newly-appointed Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. security along our border that would include recommendations on what could be done to strengthen it. Her announcement was accompanied by a statement to the effect that the terrorist threat was greater on the U.S.-Canadian border than on the border with Mexico.

What makes her decision somewhat surprising is the fact that during her term as governor of Arizona she was roundly criticized by proponents of tougher border security for being soft on this issue and on the related question of what sort of treatment should be accorded to those who had entered the U.S. by crossing the border illegally.

Her critics pointed out that as governor she opposed the building of a border fence; tried to defeat a 2004 ballot initiative that would deny most non-essential services and benefits to illegals, and signed into law legislation barring Arizona from taking part in the Real ID program. She also backed amnesty for the millions of illegals in the U.S. and vetoed legislation to deny in-state college tuition to illegal aliens as well as a bill designating English as the official language of government.

In the circumstances, we can only speculate as to why Ms. Napolitano has chosen to focus on the border with Canada rather than that with Mexico, where there are obviously major problems. One possibility is that she has decided to demonstrate her readiness to deal firmly with border security issues without having to get immersed too quickly in actions along the Mexican border that could risk eroding Hispanic support for the Democratic Party.

A further and more troubling possibility is that her decision reflects to some extent the interests of protectionist elements in the United States prepared to use security issues as a means of slowing down the movement of imports from Canada into the United States.

Prior to 9/11 the American ambassador to Canada at the time, Gordon Giffin, had raised the possibility of our two countries having a common security perimeter. In this way goods and people would be adequately screened prior to entering either of our territories so there would be less need to examine them closely when they moved across our common border.

Establishing such a perimeter would, however, require harmonization of policies in a number of areas including not only screening of cargo coming in from abroad but visa procedures for visitors and immigrants. Some Canadians have expressed strong reservations about the loss of sovereignty that this might entail, particularly with respect to determining who would be allowed to enter the country.

In the event, while a number of measures have been taken to facilitate movement across the border, the proposals for a common security perimeter were not pursued and in recent years the United States has continued to tighten up security measures on its side of the border.

Such measures have become increasingly costly in terms of trade and are particularly harmful to Canada since our economy is much more dependent on our bilateral trade than that of the United States. Quite apart from issues related to the current economic downturn including support for a “buy U.S.” provision in the stimulus package before Congress, Canadians should be even more concerned about the thickening of the border. In the longer term this could be much more damaging to the Canadian economy.

The establishment of a common security perimeter is not likely to be on President Obama’s agenda when he visits Ottawa. If we want it on the table, it will be up to Prime Minister Harper to raise it. He should do so as a matter of priority.

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