Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thinning border, thinning sovereignty

This month will be a particularly busy one for me on the work front, with three trips to the United States: Santa Clara, Orlando and Savannah. I'm writing this blog from the Maple Leaf Lounge at Toronto's Pearson Airport as I wait for my flight to the West Coast of the United States, so it seems appropriate I weigh in on one of the current issues du jour: border security and negotiations over a Canada/US border agreement.

It goes without saying that I travel a lot, almost exclusively to the United States. It's been that way since I started my current job in 2005. So from the perspective of a frequent business traveler, I've seen first-hand the impacts of the thickening border in the post 9/11 era. I check all my liquids, have a mania for metal, and always have my belt and shoes off. I;m just the facts with customs & immigration agents. Really should get a Nexus card one of these days though.

Point is, a thinner Canada/US border would be a great benefit to me personally. I'd love a European Union-style open border, where the borders are thickened when entering the common zone and thinned within. It would be a big time savings.

I just don't think it's viable in the Canadian context, though. This negotiating process has been so secretive, and deliberately so, that we just don't know what's being proposed. That's a problem in itself. But we know the basics about how any sort of agreement of this sort would work. If you're going to streamline the flow of people and cargo at the Canada/US border, you need to thicken security and regulation at the international border. In essence, if Canada and the US are going to be a common zone, you need the same rules and security around entering that common zone from outside, whether your point of entry is Canada or the U.S.

Invariably, when it comes to harmonizing regulations, it's not going to be harmonizing to a lower standard. It will be harmonizing to the higher standard. And invariably, that will mean the U.S. standard. It would be negotiated but remember we're the mouse, not the elephant.

A thinner border will necessarily mean a dilution of sovereignty, as Canadians tend to have our own ideas about appropriate levels of regulation, but would need to trade that for harmonization. Now, on straight security issues, we could probably work most of that out. Inspection levels for cargo, no problem there. Airline security is already harmonized (to the U.S. standard) for transborder flights. The main driver for a deal is cargo and trade, not passenger traffic. But it's hard, if not impossible, to separate the two.

If it stopped at security screening issues, we'd be fine. But there's another aspect that will invariably be part of this: immigration issues. Any harmonization will likely need to involve changes around not just the movement of cargo, but people. Which countries are considered safe and which aren't, who needs visas and who doesn't, their terms and validity, and so on. Refugee policy could even come into it.

If someone is going to be more free to move once they're inside the zone, the rules to enter the zone need to be the same, or one point of entry will become a weak-point to be exploited. Again, the higher standard will prevail, and that will inevitably mean the U.S. standard. And I think that's a piece of sovereignty the Canadian public will be less willing to give up.

Now it could be Canadians are becoming more conservative on some of these issues. I think the Conservatives have been trying to prep the ground with their visa battles, and the manufactured crisis/outrage over Sri Lankan refugees. The strong negative reaction over the latter would seem to indicate a hardening attitude within the Canadian population.

I think though that if the government doesn't tread carefully, it runs the risk of running ahead of public opinion and triggering a backlash. Particularly if this is seen as a secretive process.

Just how much sovereignty are Canadians willing to trade for a smoother border? We may soon find out.

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WesternGrit said...


Let's just let them run a little bit ahead of themselves...

CanadianSense said...

This post reminds me of the fear mongering by the Liberals and the NDP regarding Free Trade.

As you indicated we don't have actual DETAILS but you have speculated we MUST lose because we are smaller.

How did the free trade work out? Did our manufacturing and economy grow as a result on integrating more closely with our largest trading partner?

If we remove duplication and embrace best practices to improve cross border movement of goods and people the fear mongering in the left move goalposts to loss of sovereignty? (Predictable)

I will wait until actual details before making a conclusion.

Rotterdam said...

Splitting the Liberal party.
John Manley and former ambassadors Raymond Chr├ętien and Frank McKenna.
All in favour.

Sixth Estate said...

"I will wait until actual details before making a conclusion."

This is a democracy. The fact that we should have to wait for details at all is insulting. That said, though, I think it's hard to imagine Canada will "win" on immigration or border security here. The government will want to win in terms of trade integration; to achieve that, it will sacrifice on immigration.

It's hilariously ironic that the right now accuses the left of being too nationalist. I'm not quite old enough to remember when the right thought the left was part of an international conspiracy.

Tof KW said...

Whatever happens with any deal, whenever (and if ever) this is finalized; you can pretty much guarantee that there will be no 'thinning' of the borders. Remember that Mexico is part of this deal. Does anyone really believe the US wants a 'thinning' of their border with Mexico? The United States will still be as protectionist as ever, regardless of any agreement signed.