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Integrated border proposal looms as key election issue

Stephen Harper's decision to move Canada toward a continental security perimeter as part of new border agreements with the United States has launched a debate over sovereignty that may be resolved only with a federal election.

The Prime Minister and President Barack Obama announced talks at the White House on Friday aimed at sweeping away obstructions to trade while integrating efforts to deter criminals or terrorists.

"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 stated, as the President looked on.

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The agreement is big on promises, although short of specifics. It said the two sides would work "together within, at, and away from the borders of our two countries" to toughen security and promote trade.

This could, for example, include creating a single border surveillance agency that transmits data on people entering the United States or Canada to both countries. It could mean joint pre-screening of cargo in European ports before it is sent to North America, or the ability to clear a container from abroad when it arrives in Halifax and send it to the United States without a border check there.

As well, a new agency called the United States-Canada Regulatory Co-operation Council (RCC), composed of officials from both countries, would seek to streamline regulations governing product safety and quality, making it easier to make goods in one country and sell them in the other.

And both sides promised they would jointly design, build and manage new bridges, roads and customs facilities at Canada's busiest crossings.

U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson described Friday's announcement as "a momentous day in the history of our two countries.

"It is a turn in the road," he said, toward greater bilateral co-operation. "If we live up to the vision of the two leaders, people in both countries will be much better off."

Mr. Jacobson could not provide details on the Beyond Borders Working Group, which will be established to come up with concrete proposals, or name anyone who might be on it.

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But he said the group will be jointly managed by the Privy Council Office in Ottawa and the National Security Council in Washington and will be expected to submit recommendations in a matter of months.

The plans delighted business groups, which have been warning for years that a plethora of rules and regulations since the Sept. 11 attacks had effectively created a new non-tariff barrier along the 49th parallel.

Jay Timmons and Jayson Myers, who head the associations of U.S. and Canadian manufacturers, called Friday's announcement "an important step forward" in addressing business needs, while Perrin Beatty, the head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, described the news as "all to the good."

But the opposition parties are more than skeptical. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Canada could be forced to sacrifice important values, such as its welcoming approach toward immigrants and refugees.

"We have different standards than Americans on these questions. We have a right to do so," he said in Calgary. "If we get into a perimeter security deal that weakens Canadian society, we may end up betraying Canadian values."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said his party will strongly oppose the talks because they raise a wide range of concerns over issues such as food safety and privacy.

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"We just don't trust Harper to go and negotiate on behalf of our country alone and that's why we smell a rat here," he said. "We just don't trust this government to be on the right side of defending our resources, our border communities and our privacy."

Even before Friday's announcement, speculation was rampant that the opposition parties would defeat the Conservative budget, to be presented in March, and force an election. If that happens, the proposed security perimeter and improved trade ties would be a key issue in the campaign.

But Mr. Obama offered some political cover for those who might accuse Mr. Harper of surrendering Canadian independence. "I have great confidence that Prime Minister Harper's going to be very protective of certain core values of Canada, just as I would be very protective of the core values of the United States," he said at the press conference announcing the new action plan. " And those won't always match up perfectly."

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