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'Three Amigos' gather this week in Mexico City to talk North American excellence

WASHINGTON — Familiar North American irritants — U.S. protectionism, intransigence on continental trade, irregular migration — return to the fore this week as the so-called "Three Amigos" meet for a trilateral summit in Mexico City.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with United States President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to a meeting at the North American Leaders' Summit, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

WASHINGTON — Familiar North American irritants — U.S. protectionism, intransigence on continental trade, irregular migration — return to the fore this week as the so-called "Three Amigos" meet for a trilateral summit in Mexico City.

Canada had an automotive axe to grind with the U.S. the last time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Joe Biden and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador all gathered at the White House in November 2021.

At this North American Leaders' Summit, however, the threat of an "America First" approach to energizing the electric-vehicle industry has abated, unlike the worsening migration crisis Biden faces at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That likely means Trudeau will need to raise his voice a little to get Biden's attention on matters of specific concern to Canada, said Scotty Greenwood, chief executive of the Canadian American Business Council.

"I think Canada has to try really hard to be as relevant as it wants to be in a conversation with the United States — there isn't an automatic reason that Canada is front burner the way there is with Mexico," Greenwood said. 

"The normal diplomatic recitation of the issues we'd like to discuss together, combined with proximity and history, isn't enough in the current context for Canada to be where it wants to be, in my judgment."

Canada, of course, has a vested interest in many of the issues likely to dominate the agenda of the summit, which gets underway in earnest on Tuesday. 

Like the U.S., it too is a destination country for illegal migrants from Latin America, and is just as eager to stanch the northerly flow of deadly fentanyl. And Trudeau's Liberal government clearly shares the Biden administration's ambitions when it comes to combating climate change.

But when it comes to fostering the growth of the critical minerals industry, a cornerstone of the burgeoning market for electric vehicles, the U.S. expects Canada to be doing even more than it already is, Greenwood said. 

"The rhetoric is good, but the actual progress — the actual commitment to demonstrated policies that accelerate the development of critical minerals — Canada has to do much more and much more quickly in order to make an impression in the U.S."

Gary Doer, the former Manitoba premier who served as Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2016, said he expects the issue of resilient, reliable supply chains more broadly will be a dominant theme of the summit. 

"With all the supply chain issues going on in the world, and the opportunity of North America to improve the North American neighborhood supply chains, that'll be a fairly important item," Doer said. 

"The more certainty we can have on the supply chain, the more certainty we can have in the economy. That's a really important part of dealing with inflation: when there's uncertainty, you have greater costs."

Biden and Trudeau will hold their own bilateral meeting Tuesday before the start of the summit's formal agenda, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed Friday. 

Biden, who is travelling south this weekend to visit the Mexico-U.S. border in advance of the summit, will hold a similar one-on-one meeting with López Obrador on Monday, Kirby said. 

"Our partnership with Canada and Mexico is crucial to our economic security, prosperity, democratic stability and of course, migration management," Kirby told a White House press briefing. 

"This North American Leaders' Summit will give us all an opportunity to strengthen those partnerships and advance shared priorities for North America."

Biden can also expect an earful from both neighbours on his unapologetic political messaging on Buy American — the long-standing 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 to include North American manufacturers, but the incentives now in place still pose challenges, said Louise Blais, a retired Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to the UN and consul general in Atlanta.

"I'm expecting both the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister to raise this issue with the president to say, 'Look, we need to have a more continental approach to some of these policies,'" Blais told an expert panel Friday hosted by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas.

"It's in the interest of the United States, at the end of the day, to get those pieces of legislation right so that they they really do boost prosperity across the United States."

Kirby spelled out an ambitious Biden administration agenda for the summit that made clear that issues specific to the U.S.-Mexico dynamic, including irregular migration and the flow of illegal drugs, would dominate the meetings.

Biden's Sunday visit to the southern border is his first as president, something his political critics have been clamouring for since his inauguration in 2021. 

It follows a fresh crackdown on illegal migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, on top of existing restrictions against Venezuelan migrants, that aims to forestall the impact of a possible Supreme Court decision to end Title 42, a Trump-era public-health measure that allows the U.S. to turn away asylum-seekers. 

At the same time, the U.S. will welcome 30,000 new immigrants a month from all four countries over the next two years, provided they are eligible to work and enter the country legally.

All three countries will also want to talk about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the multiple disputes that have arisen around it since becoming law in 2020. 

The U.S. has issues with how Canada's supply-managed dairy market continues to deny 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. 

But trade disputes have their own channels under the terms of the agreement, known in Canada as CUSMA, said Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

In a briefing Friday at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Nichols also expressed optimism about an ongoing dispute between Canada and the U.S. over the trusted-traveller program known as Nexus. 

Enrolment centres in Canada remain closed because the U.S. customs officers who staff them want the same legal protections that are afforded to colleagues at the Canada-U.S. border or in Canadian airports.

"The issue with Nexus is one that we hope that we can solve, and I think we're making important progress," he said. "It's important for both our countries, and I'm optimistic that this will be resolved." 

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 — might finally take place. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press