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NAFTA trade partners accomplish little at summit

Three leaders strained by recent disagreements

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and President Barack Obama listen as Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks at a news conference in Toluca, Mexico, on Wednesday. (Associated Press)
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and President Barack Obama listen as Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks at a news conference in Toluca, Mexico, on Wednesday. (Associated Press)
Tim Johnson McClatchy-Tribune

TOLUCA, Mexico – President Barack Obama met Wednesday with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, but little tangible came out of the Three Amigos summit – a further sign that the world’s largest trading bloc is on autopilot, hobbled by spats between members.

Indeed, Obama spent his first moments of an abbreviated eight-hour stay focused on a public statement about turmoil in distant Ukraine – a country with which U.S. annual trade doesn’t equal even two days’ worth of business with Mexico.

In one sign of consensus, Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto agreed to harmonize a “trusted traveler” program, synchronizing a handful of different programs to speed border crossings around the hemisphere.

But the overall atmosphere in Mexico’s fifth-largest city was cool, a sign of the strains that separate the leaders and have slowed momentum to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

A bilateral spat between Mexico and Canada, and anger in Ottawa over U.S. indecision on whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline from western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast did not appear to get resolved at the summit. Obama and Harper said the two discussed Keystone, but Obama insisted that his administration must await further determinations about the potential impact of the pipeline on climate change.

NAFTA, the world’s largest trade bloc, comprises 470 million people from Canada’s Yukon to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The bloc represents nearly 30 percent of global economic output.

But leaders face pressures from special interests in each country, and Obama, speaking in the late afternoon next to Harper and Pena Nieto, said the leaders need help from voters to “deepen what are already incredible ties between our three nations.”

“We have every incentive to make this work,” Obama said. But he cautioned that, “you just can’t leave it to politicians alone.”

Experts say the NAFTA alliance has drifted with a lack of strategic vision.

“Twenty years later, it’s hard for us to talk to each other and reach agreement,” said Laura Macdonald, a political scientist who specializes in the region at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Mexico is irked at Canada over visa requirements that have seen its tourism to Canada drop by about 50 percent since 2008 to a level of about 130,000 Mexicans per year. In contrast, 1.9 million Canadians visit Mexico annually.

Harper is irritated with Obama for U.S. delays on deciding whether to proceed with the $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline designed to carry oil made from tar sands in the province of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Also irritating U.S.-Canada relations are delays in replacing the aged Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the single busiest international land border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume.

Rather than re-debate NAFTA, Obama pressed Pena Nieto and Harper to speak with one voice as they negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade accord that includes 12 countries around the Pacific Rim.

Minutes before he disembarked from Air Force One, Obama signed a new executive order to reduce bureaucratic barriers and speed up imports and exports, a move intended to help businesses strengthen supply chains across borders.

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