Canada and the United States have embarked on an ambitious plan to harmonize and integrate continental security while easing the passage of goods across the border, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Friday.
As previously reported, the two sides committed to developing in short order an action plan in three areas: deterring terrorist and criminal acts; improving the flow of goods and people across the border by cutting red tape and harmonizing rules and regulations; and improving the infrastructure at border crossings.
"We commit to expanding our management of the border to the concept of a North American perimeter, not to replace or eliminate the border, but where possible to streamline and decongest it," Mr. Harper said at the White House, as Mr. Obama looked on.
Mr. Obama predicted that the outcome of the negotiations that will get under way with the announcement would lead to "a new vision for managing our shared responsibilities, not just at the border but beyond the border."
Mr. Harper moved quickly to address concerns that his government was prepared to undermine Canadian sovereignty for the sake of easing trade restrictions.
"We are sovereign countries who have the capacity to act as we choose to act," he said. "It is in our interest to work with our partners in the United States to ensure that our borders are secure."
Since the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, a plethora of regulations and checks have made it progressively more difficult to cross the Canada-U.S. border, while previous efforts to harmonize product safety and quality regulations have been stymied by what Mr. Harper describes as "inertia and bureaucratic sclerosis."
"A Beyond the Border Working Group," composed of senior officials from both governments, will develop an action that combines increased border security and economic competitiveness that is to be delivered to the American President and the Canadian Prime Minister in a matter of months.
As well, a new Canada Regulatory Co-operation Council, a successor to the failed Security and Prosperity Partnership initiative of the previous decade, will aim to cut red tape and harmonize regulations.
Concrete proposals won't arrive for months, and will be accompanied by intense debate in Canada over whether the economic and security gains are worth the possible erosion of sovereignty. Mr. Harper appeared to welcome that debate.
"The declaration marks the start of this endeavour, not the end," he said, calling Friday's announcement "an ambitious agenda between two countries, sovereign and able to act independently when we so choose … but always understanding this: that while a border defines two peoples, it need not divide them."