Skip to main content
campbell clark

President Barack Obama, center, walks with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 19, 2015.Susan Walsh/The Associated Press

The Three Amigos are friends again. Justin Trudeau will host the North American Leaders' Summit in June to symbolize the repaired relations with neighbours. But it comes just as the idea of a North American trading bloc is under attack.

The summit with the leaders of the United States and Mexico will include a U.S. president in his final months in the White House, while the election campaign to replace him reaches new heights of protectionist, anti-NAFTA rhetoric, and the Republicans' presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, pledges to build walls.

Mr. Trudeau made revamped North American relations the cornerstone of his foreign-policy platform in the last election, arguing it was critical for Canadian prosperity. But that cornerstone is on shifting ground now. This summit will symbolize a reset of relations, but Mr. Trudeau is going to need a second reset soon.

Just holding the summit is a sign of success, however. Former prime minister Stephen Harper nixed the summit last spring, when his relationship with Barack Obama was embittered by the Keystone XL dispute, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was fuming over Canada's refusal to remove visa requirements on his citizens.

It's sunnier now. Mr. Obama welcomed Mr. Trudeau for an official visit to Washington in March. Mr. Trudeau promises to lift the visas on Mexicans. Mr. Pena Nieto will travel to Ottawa for a two-day state visit before the trilateral summit on June 29.

But things can change dramatically, quickly. Imagine a summit next year with President Donald Trump billing Mr. Pena Nieto for a wall, and demanding a rewrite of the North American free-trade agreement. Even if he doesn't get elected, the campaign of a Republican who calls NAFTA "the worst trade deal ever signed in the history of our country" will probably push Hillary Clinton further down the protectionist road. Her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, already had her speaking of flaws in the way NAFTA works.

Does that worry Mr. Trudeau? At a news conference last Wednesday, he brushed off the protectionist rhetoric as same-old politicking, saying that it pops up in any election campaign, but, he said, "that tends to dissipate a little bit once the election has come and gone."

Perhaps. Ms. Clinton has been more anti-trade in campaigns than as first lady, senator or secretary of state. But Donald Trump? No one knows.

And it's not just a Trump victory that matters. The surprising insurgent candidates in both campaigns, Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders, have argued North American trade is one of the biggest causes of middle-class stagnation in the United States, making continental co-operation a politically poisoned notion – something the next Congress is likely to reject. The sentiment may be aimed at Mexico, but it will affect Canada.

There's consolation in the other amigo. There's a real opportunity to deepen ties with Mexico by sweeping away a long-standing point of dispute.

The requirement that Mexicans obtain visas to visit Canada was imposed in 2009, after a surge in Mexican asylum seekers reached 9,511 that year. Mr. Harper apologized to Mexico for the visa, and revamped the refugee system so that asylum seekers from a number of supposedly safe countries, including Mexico, had their claims judged more quickly – the idea being that if false claimants were returned quickly, they'd have little incentive to come in the first place. But the Conservatives never lifted the visa.

Now Mr. Trudeau will. Canadian officials have told the Mexicans the decision is made. There will be a cost – the government is considering plans to increase funding to handle the expected increase in Mexican asylum seekers, to hear more claims and remove those rejected. But dropping the visa will remove a major sticking point.

The summit is expected to lead to new trilateral agreements on climate change, bringing Mexico into the kind of cross-border co-operation that Mr. Obama and Mr. Trudeau agreed to in March. But the real impact of those initiatives depends on the next U.S. president.

That's part of a trilateral relationship that is subject to shift. Mr. Trudeau can't afford to be sanguine that it's just election politics, when this campaign has made North American co-operation a target in U.S. politics. In June, Mr. Trudeau had better be thinking ahead to a second reset for North American relations.