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President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speak in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speak in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

REGULATION

Canada, U.S. struggling to reach agreement to agree on product rules Add to ...

An ambitious plan to harmonize product regulations between Canada and the United States has become all process, few results. But there is hope.

The Regulatory Cooperation Council – announced with much fanfare last December by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama as part of the Beyond the Border initiative – has little to show for its efforts, thanks in part to the distraction of the American election and in part to entrenched interests.

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Government officials, who are not authorized to speak publicly, point to work plans and consultations, but not to “deliverables,” as the wonks like to say.

Yet there is one possible deliverable that could have a major impact.

While harmonizing existing regulations may be an ambition too far, a framework agreement is in the works that would commit both sides to working together on future regulations.

While we may never see a continental standard for toothpaste, we could see one for hydrogen-powered vehicles, if such a machine ever reaches the market.

It’s a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty sort of thing. But even half a glass is better than none.

The RCC is mostly confined to three sectors: automobiles, foodstuffs and health and personal-care products.

But although 29 work plans have been drawn up and some minor agreements implemented, when one official was asked what had concretely been achieved, the glum answer was “not much.”

Both governments have large bureaucracies and many agencies with turf to protect. States and provinces jealously guard their own powers. And private industry can be as obstructive in practice as it is supportive in principle.

U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson has repeatedly asked why the Cheerios he eats in Ottawa are fortified with vitamins and minerals in a different way from the Cheerios he ate in Chicago. “I feel neither healthier or cheerier in one country or the other,” he declared.

Sorry, ambassador, but your Cheerios aren’t going to change.

So is the whole RCC process a waste of time? Perhaps not. For one thing, there have been recent agreements on fuel emissions and pesticides. For another, businesses on both sides of the border – the cosmetics industry is one example – are teaming up to demand action and propose their own common sets of regulations.

Most important, there is goodwill for working together more closely going forward, even if little can be done about what’s already on the books. Think, for example, about those rear-view cameras that are becoming increasingly common on cars.

Under the proposed framework – which would be less than a treaty, but more than a memorandum of understanding – if either country began work on regulating the cameras, it would be required to inform the other, and propose joint co-operation in setting standards, which would then be separately implemented by each country through regulations or legislation.

Colin Robertson, the former Canadian diplomat who is probably better informed on cross-border issues than anyone not actually on the negotiating teams, is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

“In terms of immediate progress, they don’t have much to show” for their efforts, he acknowledged in an interview. But if the two sides can entrench a culture of future co-operation, “it promises to be revolutionary,” he believes. After all, he observed, “if the regulators on both sides had been talking to each other,” when drawing up rules already on the books, “we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

If the RCC truly does its job, its greatest achievement will be to encourage a culture of trust, so that if one side does decide one day to change the rules on fortifying cereals, both sides will work together to achieve common standards.

Mr. Jacobson may yet get to eat the same bowl of Cheerios, no matter where he lives. It just won’t be any time soon.

Glass half full; glass half empty. Take your pick.

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