While standing in line for an hour to clear customs to attend a wedding in Washington, I returned to the toughest question I faced after speaking to the Commonwealth Club: “It’s fine to imagine union someday but why not take one step at a time? Why not start by just opening the border for travel right away?”
Conceivably, this is where Harper and Obama are going—exploring ways to secure the continent and, thereby, reduce and, ultimately, eliminate screening at the Canada-US border. And they are in a good position to make progress.
Their political circumstances are accommodating. Harper has a Parliamentary majority of pro-market, pro-American conservatives and Obama is credible in Canada and on security at home. He also he probably has the votes (Democrat and Republican) to ratify an agreement in the Senate. They both need a win on the economy and could enhance their profiles as successful negotiators as well.
Before the obfuscators in the State Department and at External Affairs in Canada smudge the goal line, let’s give the negotiators a concrete incremental objective: an objective that would warrant setting aside the pursuit of political integration—agree to a three year plan to integrate relevant commodity and personal data collection and sharing, harmonize inspection requirements and external entry requirements for all foreigners at Canada and US points of entry, and, in return, eliminate all internal requirements, including passports, for all internal trade and personal movement. In other words, catch up with the proud nations of Western Europe.
In order to agree to take away the security offered at the 49th parallel, the Canadian Parliament would likely have to allow US officials to have access to relevant Canadian intelligence on individuals in Canada and substantial freedom to operate within Canada as well. Also, going forward, both countries would have to grant each other a formal role in future changes to immigration policy, visas requirements, and refugee policies.
Effectively, Canadian incrementalists would have to argue that Canada cannot practically enjoy an open border and act unilaterally on immigration and external security.
If taking one step at a time is a viable approach then incrementalists must be able to speak honestly about sovereignty.
Could Harper say: “Some nations are actually less sovereign than others. If we wish to remain separate and equally free and prosperous as individuals, we must accept that we are not as free as America in setting external policies.”
This would be a hard swallow for Canadian activists, whether nationalists or not. Would such medicine not be easier to take if we acknowledged that someday it might be best to have a say in US policy making by securing as say in US elections?