[Q&A] The U.S.-Canada perimeter will see Canada give up a lot to gain a little.
THE MARK: What can you tell us about the perimeter-security deal that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama have proposed?
STUART TREW: What we have so far is the joint statement that Harper and Obama released on Feb. 4. There’s a Beyond the Border Working Group that’s been set up, which is, from what we understand from the Department of Foreign Affairs, really focused on the border – asking questions like, “How do we get goods moving across the border more quickly, with fewer barriers and less red tape?”
The Beyond the Border Working Group is really looking at Canada’s relatively insignificant request to ease the flow of goods across the border, making it less expensive for large and small business to move goods across the border – the “thick” border, as we hear from the chambers of commerce and the business lobbies. The [perspective] in the United States is, “Okay, we want an entry/exit system. We want you to harmonize with our security policies.” And that would include information on who is entering and leaving Canada. The U.S. thinks that’s a blind spot. It wants data, and Canada wants a little bit of extra ease of movement of goods.
There’s a difference in the level this is at in Canada and the United States. In the United States, there’s somebody from the western-hemisphere section of the State Department who is the lead. In Canada, there’s a senior Department of Foreign Affairs representative who answers directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. So, just to give you an idea of the importance that each side is putting on this process, in Canada, the PMO is calling the shots on this deal; in the U.S., it’s relegated to the person who would normally deal with it. Canada has probably given this deal too much weight.
At the end of the day, we’re going to see an imbalanced deal that requires a lot of Canada in terms of information sharing and highly problematic security arrangements [related to] privacy and civil liberties. What we’re going to get is a very modest agreement from the U.S. to help ease the flow of goods across the border. I don’t think Canadians are going to see that as a good deal. I think they’re going to recognize it as very lopsided as soon as they see it. The PMO has already oversold it, in terms of its importance to the Canadian economy. I think it will be very difficult to convince anyone that this is a good deal.
THE MARK: What security and economic policies are the U.S. and Canada attempting to harmonize?
TREW: Related to the Beyond the Border Working Group, there’s a Regulatory Co-operation Council that was established at the same time. We’re told it’s separate from the security side of things, but that it has a very broad mandate to deal with regulatory harmonization or co-operation in any number of areas. These aren’t specified either. If we look to past North American summits, we see that they made fun of critics by saying, “We’re just talking about jelly beans.” In fact, what they were talking about were things like intellectual property rights.
This is the biggest bone of contention in the United States right now. Whether it’s copyright or pharmaceutical drugs, the United States would like to see considerable harmonization on how things are regulated. The U.S. is particularly concerned about file-sharing websites like isoHunt, as well as the importation – through B.C., and other ports – of counterfeit goods from China, India, and elsewhere in Asia. File sharing and counterfeit goods are two things that just drive the U.S. entertainment industry crazy.
The U.S. feels that Canada’s regime is not equipped to deal with these things, which is why we are seeing this move toward enforcement of laws against counterfeit products at border points and in transit. The United States is pushing the world to go in that direction, as is the European Union.
Canada has a very rich copyright debate going on. We have a user community, if we can call it that, advocating for much broader copyright laws that would allow for fair usage, and which would avoid things like customs agents enforcing intellectual property laws at the instruction of the entertainment industry. This is what the U.S. is looking for, and this is what Canada is resisting.
The Beyond the Border action plan and working group will not be looking at that. That’s something that we just suspect would be part of the Regulatory Co-operation Council that is emerging in parallel with the perimeter deal.
THE MARK: There was a lot of resistance to the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), but so far we haven’t seen the same reaction to the perimeter-security agreement. Why is that?
TREW: What our government has been clear to say – whether or not we take this as entirely true – is that what’s different about this process versus past attempts at integration of security and economic policy, like the SPP, is that, one, there’s no Mexico, and two, it’s not as broad. This deal is very focused on border security and trade facilitation. Other broad ideas – including, for example, the joint patrolling of common waters, and expanding NORAD to cover the land as well as internal waters and space above the continent – are part of an ongoing conversation.
Everyone had assumed the SPP just disappeared in 2009, when the Obama administration stopped the process and essentially said, “We’re not going to pursue this. We’re not going to expend any more political capital on it.” It was a surprise, earlier this year, when we saw it come up again. That’s one reason I think you haven’t seen as much outrage.
Another reason is that Harper has been successfully clobbering civil society – undermining the capacity of Canadian groups that will challenge this. This is happening in a context where the Harper government has targeted many of these groups for defunding – including KAIROS, and many other members of the Common Frontiers network that were integral to fighting the SPP, as well as other rights and democracy groups. These are the kinds of groups that are being denied funding and denied a voice. That’s going to affect activism quite broadly in Canada.
Harper and Obama have promised us an action plan by the end of the summer. I think that’s when we’re going to be able to pore over it, and groups will be saying, “This is exactly what’s wrong with it.” And we’re going to see the pressure really mount on the government to justify the deal.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.