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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper leave after a news conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington February 4, 2011. (LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper leave after a news conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington February 4, 2011. (LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Who's afraid of perimeter security? Add to ...

There is little or no basis for alarm that the perimeter-security agreement being negotiated between the United States and Canada would put grave limitations on either country's sovereignty, given the objectives announced last week by Barack Obama and Stephen Harper.

The proposal is not to create a North American equivalent of the Schengen zone of 25 European countries, inside which there are no internal border checkpoints or controls. According to Mr. Harper, the Canadian-U.S. border is not to be replaced by a North American perimeter, or eliminated; where possible, it is to be streamlined and decongested.

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The concept of an "integrated entry-exit system" is the most contentious point, and is by no means self-explanatory. The Prime Minister's and the President's declaration says it will include progress toward "the exchange of relevant entry information ... so that documentation entry into one country serves to verify exit from the other country." On its face, this is a matter of the collection and sharing of data, not the setting of identical standards on whom to admit and whom to exclude - whether visitors, immigrants or refugee claimants.

Canada and the United States have different visa requirements for different countries. Even on this comparatively uncontroversial point - compared with immigration and refugee issues - it would indeed be a surrender of the power of one country to make its own foreign policy, if both countries had to accept uniform visitors' visa standards and practices.

The statements of Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and of David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, are clear. The two countries are to retain their own constitutions, laws and policies - and to respect each other's.

Dealing with who does or does not enter a country is much more difficult than dealing with what enters. Shared practices and standards on the screening of cargo for security risks, which is an objective of the negotiations, should not be a topic of polemics; these are technical matters.

Moreover, there is nothing sinister about attempts to harmonize regulations, in other words, to reconcile subordinate rules that could otherwise make the flow of trade between the countries less smooth.

Legitimate questions about sovereignty may well arise when a full perimeter-security agreement is reached and made public. In the meantime, the Canadian and U.S. governments should be encouraged to proceed, and shrill doomsaying should cease.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story that appeared online and in Wednesday's newspaper incorrectly stated the number of European countries included in the Schengen zone. There correct number is 25. This version has been corrected.

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