If Stephen Harper and Barack Obama (or his successor) fulfill the promises unveiled Wednesday with the Beyond the Border Accord, then that border will be more secure and easier to cross, both economies will benefit, and we will be able to decide once and for all what to call a steak.
The action plan announced Wednesday afternoon by the Prime Minister and President is in essence three deals. The first agrees to create a continental security perimeter to deter criminals and terrorists.
The second agrees to sweep away many of the obstacles that make crossing the 49th parallel a hassle.
The third seeks to harmonize standards and regulations in the auto sector, agriculture and health and personal care products, so that manufacturers can make and sell a product in either country without having to make changes.
There is little or nothing in the agreement that genuinely compromises Canadian sovereignty or the privacy rights of citizens. The greater concern is that all of this work will be for nothing: that bureaucratic inertia or political distraction will lead to stagnation and backsliding.
"People need to hold our feet to the fire," American Ambassador David Jacobson said in an interview. "We need to get it done."
If they don't backslide, the new agreement could make North America a safer and more integrated economy is five key areas:
1. A single window: The agreement aims to cut through much of the red tape that has been slowing down trade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The accord states that the goal is to "provide a single window through which importers can electronically submit all information," when seeking to bring goods across the border. If the two sides can pull that off, selling and buying across the border would become less of a misery of paperwork and frustration.
2. How many Aspirin you should take: A new Regulatory Co-operation Council will work to better align product and safety standards, making it easier to manufacture and sell on both sides of the border. For now, the major thrust will be on the automotive industry – creating, for example, common standards for those rear cameras that are becoming increasingly popular on cars; on health and home-care products – among other things, the council will try to harmonize the "properties, claims and conditions of use for routine over-the-counter drugs;" and on agriculture products – establishing, to take one case, a common set of terms for cuts of meat. (Good luck with that.)
3. Nexus-plus: The Nexus card permits trusted travelers to bypass the long lines at Customs. The action plan promises to expand the program by adding more Nexus lanes at border crossings and by making it easier to get a card.
4. Entry/exit: The United States pushed hard for this one. When implemented, both sides will know whenever anyone enters or leaves their country across the Canada-U.S. border. It will take money and effort to keep track of everyone, but it will also make it easier to detect crime and immigration fraud.
5. Shiprider becomes Landrider: This could be the single most important initiative on the law-enforcement side. A current pilot program called Shiprider allows vessels manned by integrated teams of Canadian and American police officers to cross back and forth across the maritime border, operating under Canadian command and Canadians laws on our side, American command and American laws on theirs. The goal is to expand the program to create specially-badged bi-national law-enforcement teams on land and sea.
None of the three dozen or so items in the action plan requires a treaty or legislation. It can pretty much all be done through executive order in both countries. But implementing the agreement will cost money to improve border infrastructure and acquire sophisticated software.
If the money can be found, the pilots are successful and everyone meets their deadlines, "two or three years from now, we ought to be able to look back, both Canadians and Americans, and say that the lives of citizens on both sides of the border are a little bit better," Mr. Jacobson believes.
If, as promised, you won't have to recheck your luggage on a cross-border connecting flight, surely that alone will make it worth the effort.