Stephen Harper and Barack Obama signed a five page agreement with an 11 word title to set up the BBWG, “Beyond the Border Working Group.” Its mandate could influence the outcome of Canada’s next election. It is a big story in Canada and was not reported in the mainstream American media.
The Canadian government put political capital on the table and the US government offered none. If the US government had agreed to review US passport requirements—to even consider in principle, catching up with the Europeans—then Obama would have had something to explain as well.
Obama must have concluded that Canada won’t go far enough to lower the border significantly. And Harper seemed to have acknowledged that: “We commit to expanding our management of the border to the concept of a North American perimeter, not to replace or eliminate the border, but, where possible, to streamline and decongest it.” Click on: http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20110205.FINALHARPEROBAMA0205ATL/TPStory/TPInternational/
Harper also had room to play down the story. After all, it’s just another committee of officials, officials who invariably concoct grandiose acronyms to describe their work. The working group’s destination is wholly hypothetical. Their efforts could lead to jointly operated Canada-US border facilities, joint perimeter entry-exit systems, less border congestion, and “cross-designated” law enforcement officers to intercept terrorists and criminals. It could lead to a single agency that shares data and tracks immigrants and refugees.
Nevertheless, Harper has made a major tactical move: for the sake of the relationship, he has accepted that Canada has to try to harmonize domestic security and border entry policies and practices.
His statement that this project isn’t about “sovereignty” may not be entirely grudging. Indeed, he may want to make it an election issue. His position boils down to this: Of course, Canada is sovereign but its national government is not entirely independent. On matters of vital interest to the US, competent Canadian governments don’t act unilaterally and invariably find honourable ways to compromise.
In effect, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff put those words in his mouth:
"We're a country that has prided itself on welcoming immigrants and refugees from other countries. We have different standards, the Americans, on these questions (sic)" said Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. "We have a right to do so. And if we get into a security perimeter deal that weakens Canadian sovereignty, we may end up betraying Canadian values."
However, Harper seems to have, along with big business, the most popular political figure in Canada on his side. Obama, rather than repeating patronizing clichés about our differences, said this at their joint press conference:
"Obviously Canada and the United States are not going to match up perfectly on every measure with respect to how we balance security issues, privacy issues, openness issues, but we match up more than probably any country on Earth." Click on: http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/Integrated+border+envisioned/4230234/story.html
In effect, he supports Harper’s assertion that we can compromise without sacrificing our principles.
Of course, the logic of Obama and Harper ought to lead to more productive questions: since interdependence, not separate values, defines Canadian politics in this new century, why not re-think what “sovereignty” means when pursuing personal and economic security? Why not look for ways to share political power, for a say in making decisions, not just in how decisions are implemented?
For the time being, however, we may soon have another Canadian election about who should be in charge in Ottawa—to contend with decisions and events shaped in Washington.