The new Liberal government's desire to reset North American relations will be on view when foreign ministers from Canada, the United States and Mexico meet in Quebec City this Friday. But a major Canadian think tank has some unconventional advice for Ottawa: Put Mexico first.
That doesn't mean the U.S. isn't Canada's biggest, most important partner – but there's more to be gained in revamping relations with Mexico right now, when the U.S. President is in the last year of his mandate.
"Let's get the sequence right," said Fen Hampson, director of the Global Security and Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. "You have to be realistic that there are only marginal gains to be made in the bilateral relationship with the United States in the final year of the Obama administration. Now is the time for Canada and Mexico to sit down and decide what they want to get out of the next administration."
A new CIGI report to be released Thursday argues there's a lot at stake. If new North American economic co-operation could spark a new round of the productivity growth that followed the free-trade agreement in 1993, it would mean an extra $7.3-trillion for the three nations' economies. There's additional economic growth to be had inside North America, it concludes, and the direct Canada-Mexico link, in particular, is neglected.
That idea won't be entirely alien to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government. It came to power promising its top foreign priority would be to "repair our relationships with our North American partners."
The U.S. was first – Mr. Trudeau's government has worked to change the tone of a relationship embittered by the dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, and to co-operate with Obama administration on global climate change talks, in particular.
But the Liberals rate Mexico as important, too. Their election platform included a rare promise to improve ties with Mexico, and to remove a key irritant – the requirement that Mexican travellers to Canada apply for visitors' visas.
On Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will host U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexican foreign minister Claudia Ruiz-Massieu for a meeting aimed at paving the way for a North American leaders meeting – the so-called Three Amigos summit – this spring.
One key topic of discussion will be climate change and energy, as the Canadian government hopes to develop a North American framework agreement. Among other things, that might look at ways to encourage other jurisdictions to enter a cross-border greenhouse-gas emissions system like the joint cap-and-trade program Quebec, California and Ontario are establishing.
There will also be talks about taking common positions on issues in the hemisphere, from the effect of climate change on central America, to energy concerns in the Caribbean, to Latin American trade, according to a Liberal government source.
There will also be talk of information sharing about cross-border traffic – at a time when the leading challenger for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, proposes building a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, and another candidate, Ben Carson, called for building a wall at the Canadian border, too.
CIGI's report calls for Ottawa to get cracking on deeper, more institutionalized co-operation with Mexico. The economic potential won't be realized if Canada and Mexico continue to operate in a hub-and-spoke fashion that puts the U.S. between them, Mr. Hampson said. Mexico has a growing population, an expanding middle class with growing disposable incomes, and the potential for increasing investment in Canada.
Symbols are important at the start, Mr. Hampson said – like lifting visitors' visa requirements for Mexicans. The CIGI report calls for institutionalizing an annual meeting between the Canadian prime minister and the Mexican president, as well as cabinet ministers from both sides.
That would help push bilateral co-operation on trade and investment and people to-people ties like student exchanges, but also develop a Canada-Mexico strategy on North American co-operation on infrastructure, including energy infrastructure, and harmonizing regulations.
Canada and Mexico recently worked together to fight U.S. labelling rules on their beef and pork, and joined against the U.S. position on rules for auto imports under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Hampson said – a lesson that they should realize they have common interests to work on in Washington.