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Key Issues at the North American Leaders' Summit

25 Jun 2016
By Christian Medina-Ramirez
North American Leaders' Summit. Photo credit: (Wikipedia) Creative Commons

Known colloquially as the “three amigos meeting”, this week’s North American Leaders’ Summit is the first high-level summit Justin Trudeau has hosted after taking office in November last year. The summit offers the Canadian prime minister a chance to build on his successful visit to the White House in March and to press the restart button on diplomatic relations with Mexico.

A cloud hung over the summit during former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure. Harper damaged diplomatic relations with Mexico over visa requirements imposed on Mexican citizens visiting Canada. Furthermore, the Canadian Conservatives’ insistence on the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s approval put a dent on the Canada-US relationship. In fact, the meeting was allegedly pushed back last year at the request of Canada over Obama’s ambivalence regarding the infamous pipeline.

This year’s summit, however, is poised to be more beneficial for North American integration. True to his sunny ways, Prime Minister Trudeau has decided to move past Keystone’s approval and the Canadian government said this week it would lift the visa requirement effective 1 December (albeit Ottawa has been dragging its feet on the latter). Overall, the positive state of relations in North America, and the synergy shared by its leaders, offers a rare chance to truly address the challenges facing the region.

Beyond expected, heavy-weight issues such as trade, climate change and which North American leader is the biggest heartthrob (#TeamJustin), here is a list of issues that should make it to the agenda, and why.

1. Drug policy & security

The tide is turning for drug policy in the Americas. A general consensus is forming regarding the merits of decriminalization and addressing narco-trafficking. Former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, among other leaders and researchers, have called for reform on drug policy, quantifying the last three decades of the war on drugs as a political, economic and public-health failure.

Mexico, Canada and the US need coherent and complementary drug policies in accordance with new research. Already, Mexico is planning on decriminalizing marijuana, Canada is expected to put forward legislation for legalization within the next year and several US States have already legalized its use. The White House has qualified drug use as a public health concern, and it is pushing legislation to address it. Collaboration and transfer of expertise on the matter would be beneficial for all parties.

Even though the shift in policy is a commendable development, it is naïve to think that the drug problem can be addressed by inward-looking actions alone. Similarly, cannabis is small part of the whole drug story. Criminal cartels and drug traffickers are extremely adept at reinventing themselves and consumers are flocking towards harder, more dangerous drugs. Concerned with falling profits and increased competition from legal marijuana businesses north of the border, Mexican cartels have shifted to producing and trafficking heroin and synthetic drugs. Heroin use and cases of overdose in the US have spiked in the last five years. Mexican cartels and their associated gangs have been labelled as one of the biggest threats to US national security. The US Drug Enforcement Agency has identified Canada-based gangs with links to China and Southeast Asia as major traffickers of MDMA and other synthetic drugs in North America.

Mexico, as a transit point and a producer of narcotics, and the US and Canada, as consumers, are key nodes in the global drug trade network. Coordinated actions and policies among the three nations could put a substantial dent in this phenomenon.

2. Regional stability & human rights

Current humanitarian and political impasses in Venezuela, Central America and Haiti are destabilising the region. These crises have impacts on North America, such as large influxes of migrants and refugees and heighten violent activity from criminal cartels.

Refugees coming from Central America, especially unaccompanied minors, pose serious security, legal and moral challenges for the US and Mexico. Already, Mexico has been criticised for their treatment of Central American migrants crossing through its territory. A possible collapse in Venezuela would lead to instability for its neighbours and an influx of refugees heading north. Haiti’s failure to elect a president in a contested election last October has left the already battered island nation without a working central government. Add this to the very long list of Haiti’s problems: economic stagnation, a tanking currency, drought, cholera, the Zika virus, food shortages and a three-month-old strike by public health workers.

If Trudeau is serious about bringing Canada back to the world stage, the three amigos summit is the perfect forum to address pressing challenges in North America’s own backyard.  A good starting point is in Colombia, where a historic cease-fire announced Thursday 23 June may end a 60-year old insurgency war. Mexico has already offered to collaborate with Canada in a UN sanctioned peacekeeping mission to Colombia with the mandate to uphold and monitor the ceasefire.

Finally, there are many issues around human rights that extend beyond North America but which North American leaders could provide guidance, share policy experiences or facilitate collaboration with neighbouring countries—especially with regards to the rights of women and indigenous peoples.

3. Corruption.

One of Peña Nieto’s flagship issues during his presidency has been tackling entrenched corruption in Mexico.

It is in Canada’s economic and trade interests that corruption in Mexico is curbed. Given the deeply entrenched levels of graft in Mexico, foreign investors have to incur extra expenses in bribes and other corruption. Beyond the ethically reprehensible actions of all parties (Canadian, Mexican and US) involved in these dealings, from a purely economic/realist standpoint, a less corrupt Mexico is better for Canadian business.

This culture of corruption also extends to other places in the region. Brazil’s current woes were brought on by corruption scandals reaching the highest echelons of politics and business. A sound strategy to curb corruption in Mexico might resonate with others fighting for transparent politics in the region.

4. Energy

Energy policy, investment and collaboration in North America is a discussion Mexican officials are eager to have. The restructuring of the Mexican energy and gas sector in 2014 and the subsequent fall of global oil prices left a bitter taste for Peña Nieto. The Mexican president was counting on the opening up of the sector to private and foreign investors as one of the biggest drivers for economic growth and the fulfillment of one of his cornerstone campaign promises. However, as oil prices fell so did the hype surrounding the much-touted reforms.

Still, the reforms were enacted and international investors bided their time for a more favourable price of oil. Skip two years ahead, and the barrel of oil is at around USD$50, a decent enough price. Now it is the time for Mexico and foreign investor to tap into the vast natural resource wealth Mexico is sitting on.

Granted, the oil and natural gas sector doesn’t have the hype that it did during the Harper years, but Canada is still a resource heavy economy. Canadian companies with expertise in the energy sector can gain from access to the Mexican market. Mexico needs the expertise from the US and Canada to develop its massive untapped resources. In the short and medium term, Canada’s economy stands to benefit from investments in Mexico’s energy sector.

Beyond the energy sector, Canada has knowledge and expertise on clean technologies, innovations in manufacturing processes and in healthcare. Ontario, for example, has made heavy investments in entrepreneurship, innovation and startups like Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) and the MaRS Discovery District. The North America Leaders’ Summit is the perfect place to showcase and promote Canada’s knowledge-based economy.

5. Donald Trump

The loud-thumping elephant in the room during the North American Summit will be Republican candidate Donald Trump. Whilst a year ago the real estate developer was but a mere blip in policymakers’ radars, today the prospect of “President Trump” is a dreadful reality. Considering that Peña Nieto and Justin Trudeau might have to eventually break bread with the US demagogue, this year’s trilateral meeting is the last chance to prepare for a Trump presidency.

Trump’s outlandish xenophobic remarks against Mexicans and his delusional rhetoric regarding the US border to the south have already taken its toll on North American relations. Furthermore, Trump’s protectionist and isolationist policies will harm Canada’s economy, if elected. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has slammed the Republican presidential hopeful over his plans to “rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement”. Trudeau remains diplomatic regarding Trump’s candidacy, avoiding questions from the media on the matter. No one can condemn the Canadian prime minister for maintaining a neutral stance in public, as it would be poor statesmanship to meddle in the US election. However, behind closed doors, the PM needs to work with the Obama administration and Mexico in containing whatever damage Trump might inflict on the region.

The future for North American cooperation is somewhat uncertain. It is a pity that Peña Nieto, Obama and Trudeau will only coincide at this year’s North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa. This summit offers a rare chance for the leaders to affect positive change for the region.

Christian Medina-Ramirez is a consultant and a freelance writer based out of Bogotá, Colombia. He holds an MA in conflict from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo. This article originally appeared on on 24 June. It is republished with permission.