BRIAN LAGHI, OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF - Ottawa gets little out of meetings like this week's Three Amigos summit in New Orleans and should instead develop a more direct relationship with the United States to get things done, says the influential head of a panel reviewing the Canada-U.S. relationship.
The review is being done in an effort to come up with a new agenda for Canadian-American relations as the U.S. elects a new president in November.
One of the men heading the review, former prime-ministerial adviser Derek Burney, said yesterday that meetings such as the so-called Three Amigos summit, which include Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President George W. Bush, often take too long to get things done and can work against Canadian interests because the three nations have such divergent needs.
Mr. Burney, who was chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, said Ottawa should return to a more direct relationship with Washington by instituting regular meetings with the U.S. president. The Three Amigos process could continue, but should become secondary in the Canada-U.S. relationship.
"I think the results from the trio have been pretty thin," he said. "I haven't seen much significant product come out of those. In fact, I've seen some of our bilateral issues go the other way, since we've been embarking on these trilateral summits."
Mr. Burney, who helped negotiate the free-trade agreement and who served as Canada's ambassador to the United States, said that while he continues to believe in the North American free-trade agreement, there are many other issues in which the three countries have such different views that little gets done.
He cited, for example, Canada's desire to ease the flow of goods over the Canada-U.S. border. The U.S.-Mexican border situation is far different from the one in Canada and those differences make it almost impossible to get something done in the area.
"I can't help but think that, because our bilateral agenda is quite a bit different from that of Mexico, that it seems to me we would be better off using the limited political capital we have concentrating more on a bilateral agenda rather than on a trilateral agenda," he said.
"The Mexicans have a very different order of business with the Americans than we do."
He said Ottawa often gets caught because the U.S. cannot do anything with Canada that it isn't ready to do with Mexico.
The U.S. agenda with Mexico includes migration and drug traffic, while Canada has issues such as the Arctic and the environment/energy, "which, in my opinion, needs a higher level of focus on a bilateral basis."
The Three Amigos agenda has focused on the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a catch-all that takes in everything from border regulations to fuel-efficiency standards to border emergencies and co-ordination on recalls of unsafe products.
This week's meetings in New Orleans are expected to address free-trade issues, particularly in the wake of calls by Democratic presidential candidates to review NAFTA.
Meanwhile, the review of Canadian-American relations is being overseen by a group operated by the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Mr. Burney co-chairs the group, along with Fen Hampson, the school's director. The lead administrator in the project is Colin Robertson, a long-time diplomat who is on loan to the school. It also includes representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, government departments, private sector individuals (such as Tom D'Aquino of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) and members of the academic community.
Mr. Robertson said the group will commission a series of research papers that will include issues like secure trade borders, defence co-operation, Arctic security, transportation and energy issues and climate change, among others.
The authors will be encouraged to be bold in their views and recommendations, Mr. Robertson said. The authors would also consult with American experts, and come together for a discussion after the election is completed.
Mr. Robertson explained that now is the perfect time for such a review, because it would allow Canada to get a fresh start with whoever replaces Mr. Bush next year.
Mr. Burney said he has yet to make his views known to the Prime Minister.
Three Amigos meetings 'thin' on results
Including Mexico in trade talks hampers Canada's interests in agenda with U.S., leader of review panel says