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Montebello Moment Came and Went

Greg Anderson & Christopher Sands

The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a trilateral negotiation process involving Canada, Mexico and the United States, has been the object of significant criticism from a variety of quarters, including Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians and the leader of the federal Liberal Party, Stephane Dion.

Prime Minister Harper joked about the criticism during the press conference that concluded the Montebello Summit, noting that a “couple of my opposition leaders have speculated on massive water diversions and superhighways to the continent—maybe inter-planetary—I’m not sure.”

Critical speculation about the SPP has run from the serious to the ridiculous, but the lack of transparency to this process has made it difficult for people outside the process to do more than speculate. We have just completed a thorough study of the origins, operation, and prospects of the SPP (Negotiating North America: The Security and Prosperity Partnership, available free at Our research confirms some of Barlow’s charges, but we concluded that the SPP may not be as threatening as critics fear, since it may not survive much longer.

The last remaining provisions of NAFTA are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2008.

But NAFTA also called for follow-up negotiations on economic regulations and standards that differed in each of the countries, in the hope of reconciling as many of these differences as possible to promote a single, North American market. Twenty-nine trilateral working groups formed in1994, but they made only scattered progress. Officials involved in these working groups encountered a number of obstacles, including a lack of political support for the talks.

Meanwhile, the dream of a single North American market was threatened by U.S. legislation affecting borders and immigration starting as early as 1996. Conferences and consultations on border issues ensued, and in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Canada stepped forward with an action plan that the Bush administration gladly adopted and then replicated with Mexico. But by 2004, election year politics in the United States made borders and immigration political again, and new threats to market access emerged for business travelers and tourists—who fuelled the growth of the service economy.

After his re-election, President Bush proposed new trilateral negotiations on economic and security issues that would pick up where the NAFTA working groups and the border action plans had left off. Canada and Mexico wanted high-level political engagement, with an annual leaders’ summit and cabinet-level co-chairs in each country to ensure progress so that the new talks would not meet the same fate as the NAFTA working groups. With limited political capital to invest, Bush wanted the negotiations to remain within the limits of executive branch authority for law enforcement, rule making, and regulation so that he did not need to secure congressional approval for a treaty or new implementing legislation.


The importance of the issues under discussion and the high-level attention from senior officials attracts public attention and concern in all three countries. And the technical nature of the talks, conducted with very little transparency, frustrates virtually all attempts to find out what is going on.

Critics like Barlow and a growing number of Americans on the left and the right of the spectrum have looked at the SPP and assumed the worst. We don’t blame them, but after looking closely at the SPP and interviewing several people involved in these negotiations, we concluded that the structural flaws of the SPP are serious, and unless they are corrected, it is likely that the SPP will end in failure.

Although the SPP manages the asymmetry among the three countries well by moving discussions to a technical level, the engagement of the United States remains the key to the success of the initiative. U.S. leadership is required to fix SPP flaws, and the Bush administration has done little to respond to critics or to propose changes.

The exclusion of the U.S. Congress from an active role in the SPP is legally defensible, but politically poisonous for the SPP. Congress must be brought into the SPP process, although it may now be too late to do so, forcing the leaders to consider launching a new process.


Special interests’ demands for greater SPP transparency are reasonable, and should be met. The North American Competitiveness Council established at the Cancun summit was a good step, but the SPP must be opened up to NGOs and citizen groups as well. The opacity of the official process has led critics to make wild accusations about the “true intent” of the SPP on the basis of unconnected meetings like those of the North American Forum, or the report “Building a North American Community” issued by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The leaders have two chances left to fix the SPP. The first best chance was at Montebello, but the leaders took no action to make the SPP more transparent, or to reach out to Congress or the special interests. A second chance may come when the United States hosts next year and Bush may choose this opportunity to repair and solidify his North American legacy. Finally, in 2009, a new U.S. president is likely to see the value in the negotiations, but either revamp the SPP or replace it with a new, better designed process.

Canada and Mexico need the stable and sustained engagement of the United States to manage regional issues and common concerns co-operatively. The alternative is conflict, and there is plenty of room for that. The SPP is a good effort, but imperfect. We wish that Bush, Calderón, and Harper had seized on the Montebello Moment to save it, or to start over.

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