Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and now a senior adviser for Dentons LLP.
Among the spaghetti bowl of trade deals currently on the Canadian menu, associate membership in the Pacific Alliance should be an easy choice.
The government and House of Commons International Trade Committee are currently holding consultations. Here is what they should consider:
The Alliance members – Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – are business-minded. They embrace the rules-based, democratic order. Their economic well-being affects the economic health of Canadian companies, especially in resources, infrastructure and finance.
The "Pacific pumas" have more than 221 million consumers. Their combined GDP is equivalent to the world's sixth-largest economy. Canadian investment in the alliance is estimated at $50-billion.
The alliance's goal is to achieve free movement of goods, services, capital and people. The members are integrating their stock markets, and are even sharing embassies in certain countries.
Canada already has free-trade agreements with individual alliance members, so some ask why we should become an associate member.
The first answer is that we must take our opportunities when they come.
We would have first-mover advantage within the best trade agreement in the Americas, just as we will have with trans-Pacific countries through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and trans-Atlantic through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). That means a bigger payoff as we establish a customer base ahead of the opposition. The cumulative rules of origin would weave the individual free-trade agreements (FTAs) with alliance nations into a seamless web. That would mean improved competitiveness of Canadian products.
Second, the Pacific Alliance is consolidating itself as a platform for economic integration within the Americas.
Canada would become a leader within the Pacific Alliance by virtue of being the biggest economy in the most liberalized caucus of trade nations in the world.
While the alliance is mostly about trade, it is also about building deeper co-operation through regulatory integration and addressing emerging issues such as the digital economy. What better place to advance the progressive trade-agenda goals in gender, labour, environment and small and medium-sized enterprises, than in this group of progressive democracies. And we have already begun. Last year, the Canada-Chile FTA was revised to include gender rights.
Third, stronger links with the alliance would give us better place and standing in the Americas. History and migration have given us strong links across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Our ties south of the Rio Grande, by comparison, are less so.
The Pacific Alliance commitment to transparency and anti-corruption within Latin America is the better model than its protectionist counterpart, Mercosur – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay – and a contrast to the periodic illiberal governance in places like Venezuela. Canadian participation in the alliance would reinforce its attraction to the rest of the Americas.
But there are potential challenges to membership. For example, the alliance's mobility provisions – free movement among the member states – might not work for Canada.
One option could be to negotiate trusted-traveller programs for business. Our guest-worker program with Mexico could serve as a model. Operating for more than 40 years, it now brings more than 22,000 seasonal workers to Canada annually.
The provinces must be active partners in considering the Pacific Alliance, just as they have been in the negotiations of the CETA, CPTPP and the talks to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA). Trade is increasingly less about tariffs at the border and more about standards and regulations in areas of provincial or shared responsibilities.
Trade liberalization acts as a catalyst to domestic economic restructuring. Most are winners, but there are also losers. We have developed institutions between the levels of government to find and implement solutions, including adjustment assistance and retraining. We must continue and refine this.
Against a backdrop of "America First" protectionism and no foreseeable conclusion to the zombified Doha round of talks at the World Trade Organization, we need alternative markets. Middle power groupings, such as the Pacific Alliance, pick up the slack and help sustain the rules-based trading order.
Other key Pacific partners – Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea – are actively considering associate membership. It is always better to be a driver setting the course in the front seat, rather than a late passenger along for the ride. Canada should move now on associate membership in the Pacific Alliance.