In the wake of last week’s leak that officials are negotiating a new continental security arrangement to facilitate greater openness at the Canada-US border, pundits in Canada have started to talk about whether Canadians would accept “trade-offs” in return for an open border. This is not surprising. Let’s cut to the chase: if Canada’s negotiation objectives are worthwhile, then elements of Canadian sovereignty will be on the table.
(There is no way to be very precise—or alarming—on this point since we don’t know how far Canadian negotiators are mandated to go. Let’s assume, however, that they at least want to return to the goals of the free trade negotiations of the late ’80s: progressively free movement of people and goods between two countries within one common market. Europe tightened up briefly after 9/11 as well. Today, however, 25 EU members [Schengen area] have no internal borders. They have significantly Europeanized border security—established common policies on entry of persons, external border controls and cross-border police, and judicial cooperation.)
For America, the world’s principal terrorist target, to feel safe about an open northern border, Canada would most likely have to make commitments even more intrusive than those that European neighbours ask of each other.
Cooperation itself waters down a sovereign nation’s right to act unilaterally. Canada agreed to that in the air security (NORAD), in joint water management, and in the treatment of American investors. Air, water, and capital are not that messy. An agreement that includes ground-level security, however, involves people’s personal rights and the reputation of Canada as respecter of human rights.
The constraints would be lopsided. The biggest party to the negotiation is most fearful and must demonstrate publicly that it has put in place a seamless security perimeter. Consequently, the diminution of Canadian freedom of action could not be disguised. (Of course, this would be ameliorated, if, like Europeans, we had a common elected trans-national parliament to answer to the people for the exercise of state security on a continental basis.)
So far, Canadian leaders have avoided all these problems. If they want a real deal, they’ll have to be more candid.
Canada’s Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, has said he’s willing to support an agreement in principle, “provided Canada doesn’t have to change its immigration or refugee policies.” Being silent on the issues of personal surveillance and security outlined above suggests he’s reconciled to leave the border essentially as high as it is. The head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Perrin Beatty, imagines the possibility of a trade-off, saying, “This is the case where the public is way ahead of the politicians.” That’s generally a pretty safe thing to say. By not spelling out what he’s willing to trade, however, he’s not offering anything to shape opinion or give the government any encouragement to take any risks.
The most eloquent and evasive intervention, unsurprisingly, comes from the pen of five former Canadian ambassadors to Washington. They’re eager to fight anti-Americanism without any evidence that that’s the central problem. Indeed, they support the negotiation as “a timely assertion of sovereignty” and, in the same vein, literally rhapsodize about border management:
“Continuously modernizing the border means managing it less as a barrier dividing our two countries and more as a bridge to enhance the security and economic integrity that is central to our future stability and prosperity.”
Borders can no more be managed into bridges than pigs can fly. Borders only exist to keep things apart and to keep people from spontaneously looking out for each other.
So, at the end of the end of the first round of public discussions of the border negotiations, what can be said?
First, the government isn’t seeking and hasn’t generated a tinkle of public support to negotiate anything that would significantly touch on Canadian sovereignty.
Second, the border will continue to divide the development of North America until Canadians and Americans, as stakeholders and federalists, take note: their two principal competitors—the federation of China and the federation of Europe—are steadily outpacing our application of our early advantage as the most open market in the world.