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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Don’t take your NAFTA amigos for granted, Canada Add to ...

Few Canadians likely even noticed when Ottawa recently signalled it was lifting the visa requirement for Czech citizens travelling to this country. But the Mexicans sure did.

For Mexican government officials, Ottawa’s move was another sign of the low priority Canada assigns to repairing its strained relationship with its North American free-trade partner, whose citizens face a visa requirement of their own that has deeply offended Mexicans and hurt business and tourism.

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Before that requirement was imposed in 2009, the number of Mexican tourists visiting Canada was growing at double-digit rates annually. There were almost 260,000 in 2008 and they spent about $365-million. Last year, there were just 132,000, with receipts below $200-million.

With thousands of Mexicans joining the middle class each year and acquiring the travel bug, Canada is clearly cutting off its nose to spite its face. Canadian firms with operations in Mexico can’t bring their Mexican employees here for meetings on short notice, a serious impediment to doing business.

The visa was first imposed to stem a rash of bogus refugee claims. But it has amounted to using a sledgehammer to kill a spider, crushing our own toes in the process. Mexicans complain that the application process takes months and is unnecessarily intrusive. The visa has taken on such popular freight that a character in one Mexican soap opera shot back at his interlocutor: “You ask more questions than the Canadian embassy!”

No wonder Mexican officials were flabbergasted to learn about Ottawa lifting the visa requirement for Czech nationals, which was imposed in 2009 to halt a surge in asylum claims by ethnic Roma. Ottawa called its move a “good faith” gesture toward the Czechs, a sentiment it has yet to extend to our Mexican friends.

Of course, the real reason the Czechs are getting a pass is that their government holds a veto over ratification of Stephen Harper’s latest legacy project – the Canada-Europe free-trade deal – while Mexico is largely taken for granted as an appendage of the Canada-U.S. relationship.

Talk about getting our priorities backward. Mexico is now worried that as Canada and the United States pursue free-trade agreements around the globe, they will grant preferences to European and Asian countries that they haven’t even extended to each other, particularly in areas such as government procurement, intellectual property and labour mobility.

“Let’s make sure, in all our global negotiations, not to forget the basics,” Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal told a NAFTA conference last week in San Diego. “And the basics are: Do not shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Canadian International Trade Minister Ed Fast, who held a joint meeting with Mr. Guajardo and U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker in San Diego, insisted that Mexico needn’t worry. Since all three NAFTA partners are among the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, they will by implication all benefit from any new preferences the TPP yields.

“We are covering areas that weren’t even contemplated when NAFTA was being negotiated,” he explained.

Ms. Pritzker offered similar assurances. “What the United States wants is 21st-century relationships and you need all three,” she told me in an interview, referring to NAFTA, TPP and the free-trade deal the U.S. is currently negotiating with the European Union. “But we’re also aware that we have to protect the relationship among these three countries. We remember that Canada and Mexico are our No. 1 and No. 3 trading partners.”

The Commerce Secretary called for more trilateral co-operation in five priority areas: attracting foreign investment, aligning regulations, upgrading border infrastructure, promoting tourism and harmonizing intellectual property rules.

“We have a phenomenal platform,” she said. “We have abundant, cheap energy. We have great intellectual property and innovators. We have tremendous investment in R&D and a labour force that is unbelievably productive … These are five areas where we could all work together to support the strength of the North American platform.”

Beyond the cheerleading, however, NAFTA has been a low-priority item for Ms. Pritzker’s boss, Barack Obama. And bureaucrats in Ottawa have protected their turf (and jobs) by resisting regulatory harmonization. They have also been an obstacle to lifting the Mexican visa requirement.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto are due to meet in early 2014. But the Three Amigos still act less like friends than acquaintances.

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