By Laura Carlsen
Faced with opposition from the left and the right, George W. Bush, Felipe Calderon, and Stephen Harper met August 20-21 in Montebello, Canada, to discuss the little-known second phase of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Declarations to the press acknowledged public concerns about the content and the secrecy of the talks, but said nothing to clear up doubts about the closed-door proceedings or disclose specific policies under discussion.
Beyond the vague feel-good rhetoric about a “prosperous neighborhood” and “common commitments” the Canadian, U.S., and Mexican leaders each seemed to have his particular agenda. Canada fears another economically disastrous border closing like the one following the 2001 terrorist attacks and wants to assure it doesn’t happen again. Bush emphasized the corporate wish-list of eliminating remaining barriers and harmonizing regulations. Calderon fears that Mexico is losing its NAFTA edge in the U.S. market and called for forming a regional trade bloc to compete with other regions of the world. No joint policy decisions or objectives were announced.
No wonder the public’s confused.
A Short History
The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) was launched in Waco, Texas, in March 2005. The heads of state of the three NAFTA countries, other government officials, and business groups have met periodically to hammer out agreements to speed up integration and increase security. This has been done with almost no public input or Congressional oversight.
Since the SPP is not a law or a treaty or even a signed agreement, there are no formal mechanisms of accountability built in. It is essentially a “gentleman’s agreement” between the executive branches and major corporations in the three nations.
This is what has people worried. Largely unknown to the public, the SPP has spawned numerous working groups, reports, and recommendations. In 2006, the private sector was brought in with the formation of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC). This body is made up of business representatives from industries involved in intercontinental trade and investment, including Wal-Mart, Lockheed Martin, the Mexican Foreign Trade Council, Canada’s Suncor Energy, and others. The Council does not include representatives of labor, environmental, or civil society organizations.
Government officials have justified the secrecy by stating that the SPP is merely a forum for refining rules and standards for transborder transactions. However, the little that is known about it reveals that some major issues are on the table.
Many of those go way beyond what was passed by North American legislatures under NAFTA. They include extraterritorial rights over natural resources, extension of the Bush administration’s vastly unpopular counter-terrorism agenda to Canada and Mexico, liberalization of financial services, and most likely a billion-dollar counternarcotics aid package to Mexico.
Although rarely identified as such, some SPP recommendations have already popped up in policies and regulation reforms. These include accelerating environmentally damaging oil production in Mexico and Canada, and “harmonizing” national standards so they sing to the tune of corporate profits rather than consumer protection.
For example, Canada has agreed to raise the amount of pesticide residues allowed in some foods and Mexico has adopted a counter-terrorism law that contradicts its own foreign policy principles. In the United States, proposed highway construction to facilitate intercontinental trade has angered environmentalists and local populations and raised questions about what exactly is the overall “vision” that the SPP purports to have.
Many of the recommendations of the SPP will have a long-term impact on citizens’ lives. While opposition has focused on resource use, consumer norms, and infrastructure, the security component of the partnership may prove to be the most far-reaching of all.
The Security and Prosperity Partnership was born in the post-9/11 era, when President Bush sought to extend U.S. counter-terrorism strategies to Mexico and Canada, and Homeland Security became a major player in the trilateral relationship. The counternarcotics proposal falls under the rubric of this new area. The package would include the delivery of U.S. arms and surveillance equipment, sophisticated espionage programs, and training for Mexico’s police and army.
Although negotiations on security issues have been among the most tightly guarded, immigration crackdowns on Mexico’s southern border and Canada’s “no-fly” list of people banned from air travel were most likely negotiated in the context of the SPP.
The Forgotten Issues of Integration
As the SPP extends its purview, the most pressing challenges to trinational integration have been inexplicably left off the agenda. Immigration, which has experienced a two-fold increase since NAFTA, has been discarded as too politically sensitive in the United States to discuss as a regional issuedespite the fact that integration processes in other parts of the world have recognized that labor flows are a central issue of regional integration.
Calderon reportedly expressed concern over harsh new employer sanctions in the United States and the “void” left in the immigration law following the recent failure of the U.S. Congress to pass reforms that effectively deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented U.S. residents. However, no mention was made of measures to reduce deaths and human rights violations on the shared U.S.-Mexico border, provide compensation funds to Mexico’s displaced sectors, or regularize Mexican immigrants in U.S. communities.
Another taboo subject was the total elimination of tariffs on corn and beans in Mexico, slated for January of 2008 under NAFTA’s agricultural chapter. Mexican small farmers have demanded renegotiation of the chapter, charging it will drive them out of business and increase out-migration. But according to government representatives, the three governments decided not to take up the issue in Montebello.
Nor did those driving the latest stage of regional integration deign to deal with urgent matters such as the impact of NAFTA on job loss and job quality in the United States, or the growing monopolistic control of production and markets exercised by transnational corporationsa subject understandably off the table of a “competitiveness council” led by global market gobblers like Wal-Mart.
Voices of Dissent
Citizen groups have mobilized in all three countries to demand information and protest the priorities of “deep integration” designed in the upper spheres of commerce and government. Canadian citizen groups on hand to protest the summit proceedings were met with tear gas, pepper spray, and police provocateurs.
Elected representatives have also objected to the secrecy of the SPP. In May the Mexican legislature passed a resolution that requires President Calderon to send the Senate a detailed report on all agreements that government officials have assumed in SPP working groups. The U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment that prohibits the use of Department of Transportation funds in SPP working groups until the Congress has reviewed and assessed the SPP agenda. Although this amendment was rejected in the Senate, several more anti-SPP resolutions have been presented. A motion that calls for public consultations on the SPP has been tabled in the Canadian Parliament.
The United States, Canada, and Mexico trade a total of $883 billion under NAFTA. The three nations clearly need mechanisms to assure that these flows are safe, orderly, and mutually beneficial.
The SPP, however, has surreptitiously proceeded well beyond the regulatory mandate into areas that threaten the sovereignty of the three nations and will have long-term effects on the lives of their citizens. This has happened not only without citizen participation, but also in many cases without citizens’ knowledge.
Trilateral decisions that affect entire populations should be open to the public and subject to citizen review. The priority should always be placed on increasing the long-term well-being of the people. As democracies we cannot allow the course of North American integration to be dictated by a closed group of corporate and cabinet representatives.
At stake is the future of our three nations, and the continent we share.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for more than two decades.