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Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper head to a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 28, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mexico is waiting for Stephen Harper's government to muster the political will to settle the most contentious issue between the two countries: visas.

It seemed, for a while, like the Conservative government was willing to move heaven and earth – or, at least, to make controversial policy choices – to settle it. But it still hangs in the air as Mr. Harper prepares to head to Mexico later this month for a bilateral visit with President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City, followed by the Three Amigos summit in Toluca with U.S. President Barack Obama.

There are big-picture topics for the three to discuss, like a North American energy revolution, renewal of the NAFTA trade bloc and hemispheric security – issues at the top of the list when Mexico's undersecretary for North America, Sergio Alcocer, visited Ottawa last week to prepare the agenda. But in Canada's case, the irritating point for the Mexicans is that Ottawa has taken all the steps toward lifting the hated visa requirements, except the last, most important one – lifting them. "This is not a technical decision," Mr. Alcocer said in an interview. "This is just a matter of a political decision."

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What does he mean? The issue that caused Canada to impose visitors' visas five years ago is gone now, but the visa requirements remain.

Canada slapped the visa requirements on citizens of Mexico and the Czech Republic back in 2009. The reason was clear: there had been a surge in the number of their citizens coming to Canada and claiming refugee status. The visa restrictions were a method to screen out asylum-seekers.

The Mexicans (and the Czechs) squawked. Mr. Harper even blamed Canada's refugee system when he visited Mexico. Then, an extensive immigration overhaul created a list of "safe" countries whose citizens would be fast-tracked through the refugee-claims system, removing an incentive to come to Canada for what Mr. Harper called "bogus" claimants. The Czech Republic and Mexico were put on that "safe" list.

It accomplished the intended goal. New claims, already reduced by visas, were swiftly processed, and most swiftly denied. Backlogs fell. There were 9,315 refugee claims by Mexicans in 2009, but only 95 in the first nine months of 2013, according to the most recent statistics from the Immigration and Refugee Board. The remaining backlog of 585 cases should be cleared within months.

A similar thing happened for Czech claims. So Ottawa lifted the visa requirement for Czechs. Mexico is still waiting.

There were good reasons to question whether Mexico should have been put on a list of "safe" countries, but once the government decided to do it, and got results, it makes no sense to keep the visas.

Ottawa lifted visas for Czechs because it was necessary for smooth ratification of free trade with the European Union. Does Mr. Harper see the same necessity for NAFTA partner Mexico?

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He should. Mr. Pena Nieto's administration has brought a new dynamism to Mexico. And it's trying to give a kick to the idea of North America, and to relations with Canada – ties that have become so run-of-the-mill that last week the country's ambassador, Francisco Suarez Davila, called them "stagnant."

Under Mr. Pena Nieto, Mexico is undergoing sweeping reforms, to education, industry and finances. It has sparked substantial pushback, but it is also attracting foreign investment. The common thread, Mr. Alcocer argued, is efforts to increase competitiveness.

"Now we have a country that has proven to itself that change can be made," Mr. Alcocer said.

That's perhaps an exaggeration – details of some reforms still haven't been passed. But Mr. Pena Nieto has launched changes, amending the country's constitution, with a speed few deemed possible a year ago.

That includes a major reform to the state-controlled energy sector, designed to attract investment to increase productivity, exploit shale gas deposits, and help build pipelines – an opportunity for Canadian oil and gas companies.

And Mexico is promoting broader energy cooperation, linking electrical grids and energy infrastructure across North America to even out regional supplies, and extending that network south to Central America, Mr. Alcocer said, to encourage prosperity and political stability.

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Mexico's energy reforms, along with the U.S. shale gas revolution, have sparked some talk about a North American advantage, where three countries with expanding energy production will form a cheap-energy trading bloc – an edge to retain or win manufacturing businesses.

Canadian and U.S. companies will see Mexico, with it lower wages, as a competitor, but Mr. Alcocer argues that what the three countries need is a regional approach to designing products, and innovating, and to trade with rest of the world, as a bloc – emulating the joint approach of the European Union a little more. "We need to compete as a region," he said.

That, one would expect, is an agenda Mr. Harper would embrace, based on expanding trade and energy development. He could give it a push by making a now-obvious political decision, and lifting visa restrictions when he goes to Mexico.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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