No deals but immigration, climate-change promises aired at Amigos summit

It's possible that Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto just made nice at this week's summit of North American leaders in Toluca, Mexico, despite their obvious differences. Then again, success at these things can be measured in droplets.

North America's three leaders have their obvious differences, but they still know how to make nice

Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with U.S. President Barack Obama through a botanical garden in Toluca, Mexico on Wednesday, during the summit of the three North American leaders. No movement on Keystone pipeline from the U.S. side. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Jean Chretien famously pronounced his last G8 summit as prime minister a success. When asked why, he replied, "Because it could have been a disaster.''

That same logic could be applied to this week's meeting of the three North American leaders in Toluca, Mexico.

Going in, many analysts predicted the so-called Three Amigos — Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto — would accomplish little because of the shifting domestic agendas in each country. Not to mention the personal tensions among the leaders themselves.

And there was no mistaking the tensions.

Whether it's the friction between Harper and Obama over the Keystone XL pipeline, or Peña Nieto's annoyance with Obama's failure to deliver promised immigration reform, or his frustration with Harper for refusing to lift the controversial visa restrictions on Mexicans entering Canada, the one-day meeting could well have been a disaster.

Instead, the leaders were able, if not altogether willing, to put on a united front, trying hard to breathe new life into a dormant North American agenda, and to build on the growth and co-operation that began 20 years ago with the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Harper called NAFTA an overwhelming success at the leaders' news conference on Wednesday night.

"There has been a fourfold growth in trilateral trade over the last 20 years that now exceeds a trillion dollars," he said.

Obama one-upped him, calling North America an ''economic powerhouse.''

What's more, he suggested that NAFTA is an agreement that, instead of being outdated as its many critics charge, can serve as a model for the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the giant trade negotiations with Asia's Pacific Rim nations that the U.S., Canada and Mexico have all joined.

Obama pointed out that many of those Pacific Rim countries don't have a history of open markets, or democratic values.

"Part of our goal here is to make sure that they have a model of trade that is free, and fair and open, that allows our businesses to compete.''

Words and actions

But lofty sentiments, of course, need to be accompanied by achievable goals. And that, at first read, is what the leaders appear to have set for themselves.

They pledged to bring in a North American trusted-traveller program by the end of the year to help speed regular business travellers through customs. They also directed their energy ministers to meet this year on energy co-operation, and agreed to re-commit their efforts to deal with climate change.

As expected, there were also calls to reduce red tape at border crossings and to promote mutual security and policing and all that sort of stuff.

The results of these efforts are to be reported back to the leaders when they meet next year in Canada.

Canada not budging on Mexican visas, a thorny issue south of the Rio Grande. But Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto chose to put the best face on the problem. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Harper is a big fan of this kind of accountability. He pressed for regular progress reports from member nations of the G8 and G20 on reducing debt, and meeting development goals.

Accountability alone, though, won't guarantee results. But it does offer a way for interested groups to measure whether words speak louder than actions.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, now with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said before the meeting that the focus had to be on improving the competitive position of the trading block.

"That would be really big,'' said Robertson. "If we can improve our transportation, roads and rail, strengthen our shared electrical grids, how we manage pipelines, that's what we should be working for.''

There were even signs of movement on some of the stickiest bilateral irritants.

Obama, for example, made a point of telling Peña​ Nieto that immigration reform in the U.S. remains a priority. (Though perhaps only a partisan one as congressional Republicans look to be walking away from the table.)

Just as interesting, Obama said he is prepared to work with Canada to develop joint standards on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector, something Harper had proposed in a letter to the White House last fall to assuage concerns over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta's oil sands and refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"I welcome the work we can do together with Canada,'' Obama said, as Harper looked on. ''I believe we can both promote economic development and growth, recognizing we can't immediately transition off fossil fuels.''

But, but, but …

But as he continued, Obama changed course and repeated his insistence that the pipeline's impact on GHG emissions would be a key factor in his eventual decision to approve Keystone or not.

The science is irrefutable," Obama said. "We're already seeing severe weather patterns increase, and that has consequences for our businesses, for our jobs, for our families, for safety and security."

In reply, Harper suggested that the U.S. State Department's review was "pretty definitive" that Keystone would not add to GHG emissions — though some would argue that's a generous interpretation of a finding that said oil sands development would proceed with or without the pipeline.

And Harper pointedly referenced his government's decision to streamline environmental reviews, to give investors "certainty."

As well, Harper didn't budge either on the biggest irritant in Canada-Mexico relations. The visas imposed on Mexican travellers in 2009, he said, will remain.

Canadian officials, speaking on background, said that, since 2009, the number of bogus refugee claims from Mexican visitors dropped by 85 per cent, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perhaps because he was host, Mexico's Peña​ Nieto was more gracious in his response, praising Harper for being willing to continue working on ways to end the restriction.

So, tensions clearly remain among the Three Amigos.

But the meeting was not a disaster.

Whether it can be called a success will have to wait until next year's summit at least, when Stephen Harper will be the host, and the leaders are to report on the progress their governments achieved.

Of course, that's also an election year here in Canada. Canadians might already have their scorecards ready.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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