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colin robertson

North American integration has a new champion in U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden.

Looking at the United States, Canada and Mexico during his recent visit to Mexico he wondered aloud why there is not more co-operation? "It's just so natural, geographically, politically, economically."

The trilateral idea has been on life support for more than a decade. The economic gains of the North American free-trade agreement were realized by 2000. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the requirements of U.S. security curbed the further development of North American integration.

George W. Bush made an effort at revival through the Security and Prosperity Initiative. A Christmas tree of multiple wishes and bureaucratic bafflegab, it was quietly put into the 'out' basket by the Obama administration.

The trilateral leaders meetings, once annual standalone events, are now occasional and tacked onto other events. They have become a photo op. In substantive terms, they mask dual bilaterals: one between the U.S. and Mexican presidents and the other between the U.S. and Canadian leaders. Each has their own agenda.

For Canada, it is about preserving and improving access to the U.S. market. For Mexico it is regularizing immigration and keeping out the guns that arm its drug gangs. For the U.S., it is about security: keeping potential terrorists from slipping through Canada into the U.S.; keeping out illegal migrants and drugs from Mexico.

Now Mr. Biden promises to shift the U.S. emphasis back to economics.

His visit to Mexico, with four cabinet secretaries, launched the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue.

Border infrastructure is to be modernized using new technologies to extend hours of operation. It commits to doubling by 2020 of the number of Mexican students studying in the U.S. and Americans studying in Mexico.

Mr. Biden should now turn his attention to the northern border.

Of late, the tone at the top has become less than constructive. The Keystone XL pipeline, as important as it is to North American energy security, is crowding out the agenda to the exclusion of progress on other issues.

Both leaders share some responsibility for the pipeline impasse.

President Barack Obama disses its economic advantages and has failed to recognize private sector progress in addressing climate change.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not helped with his assertion that he won't take no for an answer and implied that he'll look to the next administration for redress. Our energies would be better spent bringing forward long-promised oil and gas regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

We need to focus on what we can constructively do together rather than on our divisions. This is where Mr. Biden can be helpful.

As he observes, the dynamic of the North American trading relationship has evolved. The current system is designed for the old world of imports and exports, of tariffs and customs officials.

Today it is more about making things together.

The bits and pieces, and the people that service them, now come from a thousand points across the continent, irrespective of country of origin. When borders become chokepoints, we lose North American competitiveness.

Recognition of this fact should be the starting point in what should be a permanent process where the emphasis is on continental regulatory alignment and expediting the cross-border passage of people, services and investment.

The Canada-U.S. beyond-the-border and regulatory co-operation initiatives are quietly making progress but they could do with high-level boosting.

Our security ministers have done their work and created a perimeter, arguably with belt, suspenders and life jacket.

Now we need to see commensurate attention by our economic ministers to improve access for goods, people and services.

Get on with the promised new bridge between Detroit and Windsor. More trade crosses that gateway than that between Japan and the United States. It is vital to manufacturing, especially to the automotive industry that depends on its supply chains.

Canada is putting up a half billion dollars to help fund the Michigan portion. Now we need assurance of U.S. financing of its customs plaza.

Mr. Biden should come to Canada and begin a high-level economic dialogue that complements the one being undertaken with Mexico. Let the two dialogues proceed in tandem with the goal of eventually bringing them together.

With an eye to the future, Canada should join the U.S. and Mexico in doubling the student exchanges between our countries.

Once we get beyond the border, our shared agenda should address issues including skills and training, labour mobility and mutual recognition of credentials. This is how we will realize the promise of North America.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.