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Trudeau, Biden have bilateral meeting as North American summit begins in earnest

One-on-one Trudeau’s best chance to press Biden on issues of specific concern to Canada
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Summit of the Americas, in Los Angeles, Calif., on June 9, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden are meeting face to face this morning as the North American Leaders’ Summit begins in earnest.

It’s the first formal bilateral for Biden and Trudeau — two-thirds of the so-called “Three Amigos” — since the Summit of the Americas in June.

Much like last year’s gathering of hemispheric leaders, Biden’s agenda will be dominated by the migratory crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That’s why this morning’s meeting will be Trudeau’s best chance this week to press Biden on issues of specific concern to Canada.

The two have plenty to talk about, from lingering trade disputes over dairy markets and the auto sector to the embattled trusted-traveller program known as Nexus.

There’s also the lingering question of when Biden will make his oft-delayed visit to Canada, normally one of the first foreign trips of a new president.

But for Canada, the overarching economic goal of the summit will be to ensure Biden — a vocal champion of protectionist, pro-labour domestic policy — sees America’s neighbours as true partners and collaborators.

That was clear enough from the summit of business leaders from across the continent that got the Canadian portion of the proceedings started on Monday.

“Far too often, we’ve acted as either three independent countries or two bilateral relationships. In today’s world, that is going to leave us behind,” Business Council of Canada CEO Goldy Hyder told the gathering.

It’s time for leaders in all three countries to think more in terms of North America as a single, self-contained unit than as separate entities, Hyder said.

“How the world is taking shape is really strength in numbers and blocs. And yet, in North America, we haven’t really come to that conclusion ourselves.”

Trudeau acknowledged Monday how close the continent came in 2019 to losing NAFTA, the 25-year-old free-trade agreement replaced during the Donald Trump era with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which went into effect in 2020.

“We almost lost NAFTA,” Trudeau said, “talking amongst friends,” as he thanked the group for the various roles they played in securing the new deal, known in Canada as CUSMA.

“The Mexican government, and me and my government in Canada, worked very, very hard to try and convince the American administration at the time how important trade with friends, integrated supply chains, reliable partnerships and a continental approach to building opportunities for our citizens was.”

Be that as it may, the USMCA era has not been smooth sailing.

The U.S. argues that Canada’s supply-managed dairy market denies American producers fair access to customers north of the border. The U.S. also says Mexico is unfairly favouring domestic energy suppliers. And both Mexico and Canada say the U.S. isn’t playing fair when it comes to how it defines foreign content in its automotive supply chains.

Mexico is also under pressure to come to terms with the U.S. on López Obrador’s plan to ban imports of genetically modified corn and the herbicide glyphosate, a decree that has angered American farmers.

A report released last week by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas heralded what it called “a new era of trade disputes,” noting that 17 such disagreements have erupted in the USMCA era, compared with just 77 over the course of NAFTA’s lifetime — an average of just over three a year.

Then there’s Buy American, the long-standing, politically popular U.S. doctrine of preferring domestic suppliers over those of even the most neighbourly allies.

Canada may have averted catastrophe when Biden’s electric-vehicle tax credits were amended last year to include North American manufacturers, but the president still rarely misses a chance to tout made-in-America supply chains.

Canada often doesn’t want to be lumped in with Mexico when it comes to its relations with the U.S., said Scotty Greenwood, chief executive of the Canadian American Business Council.

“It wants to have its own unique relationship with the U.S., so we’ll see if Canada is going to embrace or resist the ‘North American idea,’” Greenwood said.

“Meaning, ‘Let’s view things as a bloc and as a region, and let’s take things on together.’ I hope it embraces it. But that would be different.”

As the meetings got underway Monday, there was still plenty of trilateral goodwill on display.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard sang each other’s praises as they together signed a joint declaration for racial equality.

“It goes to a common ideal that is at the core of our democracy: that we’re all better off when every individual in our societies enjoys equal rights and equal opportunities,” Blinken said.

”It’s in our interest to ensure that all communities and individuals can reach their full potential — not just within our own countries, but across North America, across our hemisphere, across the world.”

Added Joly: “Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice.”

While it will absorb a lot of the political oxygen at the summit, the U.S.-Mexico border won’t be the only foreign frontier on the agenda: advocates hope for forward progress on the dispute over the Canada-U.S. trusted-traveller program known as Nexus.

Most Nexus enrolment centres in Canada remain closed because the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who staff them want the same legal protections their colleagues get at the border — a concession the federal government has so far been unwilling to grant.

Hopes are high that a pilot project at two entry points in Ontario will be expanded across the country as an end-run around the stalemate that would whittle away at a backlog of applications.

Biden also has yet to visit Canada in person since taking office — a long-standing bilateral tradition that typically comes shortly after a presidential inauguration, but which was short-circuited in 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week’s meetings could provide fresh clarity on when Biden’s long-promised trip north — confirmed over the summer, but interrupted again when the president himself tested positive for the virus — might finally take place.

—James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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