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Looser border restrictions a top priority, Obama signals to Harper

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper are seen during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, April 2, 2012.


A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that led to tough new restrictions at U.S. borders, President Barack Obama said Monday he was committed to making it "faster and cheaper to travel and trade."

It was just the sort of presidential focus on trade that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to hear.

While vowing that U.S. borders could remain secure, even as they became more efficient, Mr. Obama said his top priority was jobs and that's why "we are doing everything we can to speed up the recovery, and that includes boosting trade with our two largest economic partners," Canada and Mexico.

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Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon met for three hours Monday at the White House – the sixth time the so-called Three Amigos North American summit has been held.

"I want more trade supporting even more jobs," said Mr. Obama.

In a joint statement, the three leaders agreed that "broad-based, sustainable economic growth and job creation remains our top priority." That priority that is especially important for Mr. Obama, who is waging a tough re-election battle in the middle of a fragile economic recovery.

For Mr. Harper, armed with a majority government and a fresh mandate, the trilateral relationship is dominated by bilateral issues: notably seeking to pry open – as much as possible – the Canada-U.S. border that was thickened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That decade-long Canadian effort continues.

At the post-gathering news conference in the Rose Garden, Mr. Harper declined to be drawn by one questioner into U.S. politics. "I don't think you really expect me to intervene in the U.S. presidential election," he said, before adding that the relationship transcends politics.

"For Canada, the United States is and always will be our closest neighbour, our greatest ally and our best friend. And I believe that American leadership is at all times great and indispensable for the world."

The prime minister also sidestepped a question about ending the requirement that Mexicans get visas – a bitter issue in Mexico – to enter Canada. As of today, visa requirements remain Canada's only way of avoiding large-scale and bogus refugee claims, he said, adding new legislation would give Ottawa other tools.

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Lurking beneath the post-summit smiles and effusive expressions of mutual admiration were some nasty irritants.

Last fall, Mr. Harper called approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline – designed to funnel Alberta's tar sands oil south to U.S. markets – a "complete no-brainer." But Mr. Obama, facing mounting opposition from voters worried about polluted drinking water and the impact of Alberta's carbon-heavy oil, decided that the smarter thing to do was block Keystone, at least until after November's election.

Mr. Harper voiced "profound disappointment with the news," and said he would shop Canada's oil elsewhere.

In their joint communiqué, the three leaders promised continued co-operation to protect the environment, promote border security, fight cyber-crime and ease obstacles to trade. They noted that in 2011, for the first time, the value of trade among the three nations topped US $1-trillion.

But the communiqué, inadvertently perhaps, also seemed to reinforce the growing conviction that the trilateral relationship is secondary, citing instead a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and Mexico on the one hand, and the U.S. and Canada on the other.

These include Mexican-American co-operation on harmonizing regulations and easing obstacles to crossing the border, and similar agreements between the United States and Canada.

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The three countries were also at different levels of harmonization in the areas of protecting intellectual property rights and in the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement under negotiation to which the U.S. belongs and to which Mexico and Canada aspire.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, the cornerstone of the trilateral relationship, was barely mentioned.

In part, that reflects the divergent – and more pressing – political priorities of the three leaders. For Mr. Obama, in the middle of a tough battle for a second term in the White House, jobs for Americans trumps all else. And for most voters in the United States, "NAFTA has become a synonym for job loss and outsourcing," said Colin Robertson, a former senior Canadian diplomat in Washington and now a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge and Senior Fellow at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

In a commentary published before the leaders met, Mr. Robertson said "sadly, the idea of closer economic integration creating an uber-North America – effectively a customs union between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico that would marry resources, labour and market – is on life-support."

Meanwhile, Mr. Calderon, grappling with a bloody drug war that has killed tens of thousands as drug cartels battle – mostly with American weapons smuggled south – for dominance in the multi-billion-dollar business of satisfying millions of addicts in the United States, wants Mr. Obama to do something about the demand side of the illegal drug trade.

In an election year, talk of decriminalizing drugs to help Mexico is a non-starter for U.S. politicians. "We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," Mr. Obama said earlier this month.

But nothing substantive emerged from Monday's summit.

The three leaders did, in their joint statement, offer a pledge to "further share expertise and information and to co-operate in key areas such as countering arms trafficking and money laundering consistent with our laws and constitutions."

That may be less than Mr. Calderon, already in the last months of his presidency, wanted to go home with.

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