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Analysts seek ‘next step’ for NAFTA ahead of trilateral talks in Mexico

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City on Feb. 18, 2014.


High hopes but low expectations were being expressed by continentalists leading up to the Three Amigos summit among North America's three not-so-very-friendly leaders.

With so little expected, it may be time to take stock of the trilateral relationship, suggests a new assessment published on Tuesday from the Canada Institute and the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Short-term political considerations and personal differences among the leaders mean little may be accomplished at the summit in Toluca, Mexico, panelists said at the unveiling of the report, "Is Geography Destiny? A Primer on North American Relations."

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"Partly due to ongoing disputes between the two countries, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, intellectual property rights, various border disputes and environmental spats, and partly due to the absence of a strong personal connection between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Steven Harper, there is a feeling of 'treading water' between the U.S. and Canadian governments," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute.

"There are going to be elephants in the room," said Carlos Gutierrez, who was commerce secretary in the George W. Bush administration and is an ardent proponent of a deeper and broader trilateral relationship. Among those elephants are immigration and weapons and drugs trafficking. Mr. Gutierrez, who delivered the keynote speech at the launch of the report, said he was concerned all three leaders will avoid big issues.

"I hope and wish that there is the political will to rise to the occasion and go beyond a check-the-boxes type of a meeting," he said, adding that he expects little beyond a list of promises for officials to consider and report on.

Mr. Harper likely will not get answers on Keystone XL. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto wants Canada to lift the visa requirements it imposed unilaterally and without warning. And Mr. Obama wants to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Canada is "miffed at the United States about the Keystone pipeline," David Biette, director the Canada Institute, said, adding that "constantly harping on it, or whining, if you will, is not the best route for Canada to take."

Two decades after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, the challenge is "how do we take NAFTA to the next step," Mr. Gutierrez said.

The risk is that the trilateral relationship is being further eclipsed by the two bilateral relationships. Even though Canada-Mexico ties and trade have grown over the past 20 years, they remain inconsequential compared to Canada-U.S. relations and the relationship between the United States and Mexico, which is evolving even more rapidly.

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"In recent years, the prevailing dual-bilateral approach has both led to and caused a 'North America when necessary but not necessarily North America' mindset," said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute and co-editor of the report.

The trilateral relationship needs to be given new importance and new vigour, the report contends. "In the absence of such a vision, dual-bilateral approaches threaten to diverge, to slowly pull apart what geography and NAFTA have put together," Mr. Wilson wrote.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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