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Canada and the United States face a rare opportunity to advance their economic and security objectives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama are expecting a Beyond the Border working group to very soon produce an action plan that will give concrete effect to their joint vision for perimeter security and competitiveness that was announced in February.

A recent study shows that delays at the Canada-U.S. border cost the Canadian economy as much as 1.8 per cent of its annual GDP. For its part, the U.S. government is focused on promoting exports and, like Canada's, is seeking efficiencies and cost savings.

The leaders' vision, if supported by lasting mechanisms to enhance co-operation and protect individual rights, including privacy, can support both countries' economic agenda by removing costly and unnecessary impediments to beneficial Canada-U.S. trade, making the border a safer doorway rather than a barrier to Canadians and Americans who wish to trade freely with each other.

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It will improve security, through a more intelligent joint approach to identifying and intercepting risky shipments or individuals, well before they reach the physical border, and stronger protection of the infrastructure and cyberspace underpinning the galaxy of transactions that take place between the two countries.

Canada and the U.S. share a long history of co-operation promoting joint economic prosperity. They have covered each other's back in combatting security threats to either country for generations. They have created successful mechanisms to manage shared water resources. These examples of co-operation operate within the context of institutional and legal differences between the two countries. They facilitate, rather than impede, the exercise of each country's sovereignty.

Many measures required to make this new initiative work – such as preclearance procedures and safe traveller programs – already exist but need to be streamlined and more widely adopted. Many are uncontroversial. Others involve explicit joint threat assessments between Canada and the U.S., and information-sharing. Public acceptance and success of the action plan will depend on how these assessments translate into everyday experience.

The plan's success also will depend on its ability to inspire confidence in each country, not only on the part of the executive in Washington and Ottawa, but with Congress and Parliament, states and provinces, and the general public. Trust is the ingredient that will make the plan work. Care must be taken, too, to ensure that the quest for streamlined border passage does not increase net compliance costs, which could be particularly damaging to small businesses.

This means that implementing the action plan will require a dedicated bilateral mechanism, an institution reporting to the two federal governments and working with other governments and agencies.

An independent audit of security risks and practices should be submitted annually to legislators in both countries, so that acceptable levels of security are achieved, and seen to be achieved, to reduce the risk that politically driven border impediments will be introduced in the future. And an ombudsperson, with authority to investigate and redress misuse of shared information, should be appointed to promote public trust.

To minimize unnecessary costs, the plan should include a single electronic window for small businesses and others to exchange information and any relevant payments, reduce or streamline border-related fees and taxes, and provide for independent audits of the effectiveness of resources dedicated the border.

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Opportunity knocks to modernize Canada-U.S. economic and security relations, making the two countries more competitive and safe. Ottawa and Washington should open the door.

Daniel Schwanen is associate vice-president, trade and international policy, at the C.D. Howe Institute. His recent study Beyond the Border and Back to the Future is available at www.cdhowe.org.

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