Sovereignty, NAFTA loom large at summit

The leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the US face anxieties at home about weaker national sovereignty.

Cooperative – but not too close.

With the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico each facing rising anxieties at home over perceptions of weakening national sovereignty, that was the common objective of Tuesday's NAFTA summit at a wooded resort in Quebec.

US President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted their annual gathering to highlight efforts to accommodate booming trade among the three countries while also enhancing border security. To that end, the leaders were expected to announce a new plan for meeting border-crossing demands during emergencies – either natural or man-made, such as a terrorist attack – at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

But even as hurricane Dean bore down on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, a figurative storm of national-sovereignty fears was churning relations among the three neighbors, linked by the North American Free Trade Agreement since 1994. The anxiety reflects disappointments over NAFTA's results, some experts say, even as the trade agreement is blamed for the perceived negative impact of closer relations.

"We've now had more than a decade of implementation of NAFTA, and there's a rising sense of negatives associated with that – in particular a sense of loss of local control to some overarching superentity – even as the promises of NAFTA uplifting everyone, creating jobs, and enhancing the rate of development do not seem to have been kept," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, an expert in Western Hemisphere relations at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "In all three countries, people feel this super-government they have no say in is having a growing influence over their lives."

•In the US, Mr. Bush faces growing criticism, largely from within his own conservative base, that illegal immigration and a border left porous to accommodate trade that serves the interests of large corporations are reducing America's control of its own affairs.

In a letter to Bush on the eve of his trip to Canada, 22 members of Congress – 21 Republicans and one Democrat – expressed "serious and growing concerns" about decisions the Bush administration has taken with neighbor governments that "may actually undermine our security and sovereignty." In particular, the members of Congress warned Bush off any deepening of a Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) that the US launched with Canada and Mexico in 2005.

•In Canada, a few hundred protesters calling for a "No to Americanada" gathered outside the summit site, motivated in part by fears that an integration of the three North American countries is proceeding under the public's radar and at official gatherings closed to outside scrutiny.

Whipping up Canadian sentiments are Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan and the US response to Canada's recent claim to the Northwest Passage in the northern Arctic region. The Bush administration says it considers the shipping route – expected to grow in importance with the melting of Arctic ices – to be in international waters.

•In Mexico, age-old worries about American interference in internal affairs have spiked recently with discussion of a plan for increased US assistance in fighting Mexico's drug gangs. At the same time, members of Mexico's Congress have railed against lost control of internal affairs to the SPP process, which some say is dominated by the more-powerful US.

In the US, discussion of lost sovereignty as a result of advancing NAFTA integration – a discussion that is particularly strong on anti-immigration websites and blogs – has become so pervasive that the White House has taken the unusual step of providing its own rebuttal on a special "myths vs. facts" Web page about the SPP. The site labels as "myth," for example, that North America is headed toward a common currency.

But some critics say the Bush administration has brought the rumors and speculations on itself by conducting meetings on the SPP's implementation away from public scrutiny. Of particular concern is a North American forum in Canada last September, the minutes of which were labeled "not for public release." Later obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, the minutes included the use of the expression "evolution by stealth" to describe how "the concept of North America" might best move forward.

While the concerns about lack of transparency in NAFTA relations are real, some experts say that growing concerns in the US about illegal immigration are the big motivation behind the anti-NAFTA boom. "For better or worse, these concerns are expressed in terms of Mexican immigration," says Mr. Tinker-Salas.

He notes that when Americans worry about "Mexican trucks careening down our freeways with bad brakes" – a reference to a measure under the SPP that would open the border to Mexican truck transport – fears of more Mexicans taking American jobs are not far behind.

At the same time, when Mexicans see the anti-immigration discussion in the US, they feel they've been hoodwinked once again. An executive order by Bush earlier this month that seeks to tighten immigration controls in the wake of congres­sional failure to enact immigration reform is one example for them of the reality of American control of their destiny.

"For many Mexicans, NAFTA was a matter of integration, an agreement that would put relations on more of an equal footing," says Tinker-Salas. "But now it's very clear to them that things are back to the usual, that Mexicans are being scapegoated once again as the source of all of America's ills."

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