Biden signals hard line on Buy American as Ottawa urged to push for exemption

By James McCarten
THE CANADIAN PRESS

WASHINGTON – The White House isn’t leaving much wiggle room for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to escape Joe Biden’s Buy American rules.

The two leaders are set to meet virtually later today in Biden’s first bilateral meeting since taking over as U.S. president.

A fact sheet released early today by the White House describes plans for a “road map” for progress in areas of mutual interest, like COVID-19, climate change, defence and social justice.

It makes no mention of certain Canadian priorities, such as procuring more vaccine doses, freeing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from China or securing an exemption to Buy American.

Experts want Ottawa to push hard for an exemption so Canada isn’t impacted by Biden’s plan to prioritize U.S. businesses for federal infrastructure and procurement.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says no immediate changes to the regime are on the horizon.

“He signed an executive order; we’re of course evaluating procurement components of that, but no changes anticipated,” Psaki said Monday.

Trudeau is likely to ask Biden to ease restrictions on U.S. vaccine exports, since Canada has been squeezed by production problems in Europe, and for more help in bringing Spavor and Kovrig home.

They were detained in an apparent act of retaliation for Canada agreeing to arrest and detain Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to await extradition south of the border, where she’s accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

On that point, Psaki would only say, “The prime minister will bring up whatever he would like to bring up, as is true of any bilateral meeting.”

Much has been made in recent weeks of the “shared vision” between Trudeau and Biden, particularly when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring faith in multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization and the UN.

Not surprisingly, that’s precisely where the White House appears to be focusing its attention.

“The road map is a blueprint for our whole-of-government relationship, based on our shared values and commitment to work in partnership on areas of mutual concern,” it said in its fact sheet.

The fact sheet lays out six priority areas, including beating back the pandemic, rebuilding the economy “on both sides of the border,” and plans for a “high-level climate ministerial” meeting to align efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Other areas include improving social diversity and inclusion, expanded co-operation on continental defence and a modernized NORAD, and restoring a collective commitment to global institutions like NATO and the WTO.

It also indicates plans to resurrect the North American Leaders’ Summit – a trilateral meeting of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, more commonly known as the “Three Amigos” summit, which hasn’t been convened since 2016.

Eric Miller, a Canada-U. S. expert and president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said the synchronicity between the two leaders is why Trudeau needs to seize the moment.

“To me, this is exactly the moment for Canada to go on offence,” Miller said.

The Biden administration and the Trudeau government have aligned interests on climate change, a multilateral foreign policy and on a new approach to China, he said.

And Biden, an outspoken champion of unions, needs to be careful not to run afoul of organized labour groups with large memberships on opposite sides of the border.

“If I were Canada, I’d be pitching very strongly for a Buy American agreement – I mean, the worst they can say is no,” Miller said.

Blue-collar workers in Canada “are pretty much exactly the same as their U.S. counterparts. Why are you going to hit them with restrictions when it’s like hitting your cousin?”

Maryscott Greenwood, the chief executive officer of the Canadian American Business Council, said the Prime Minister’s Office would do well to imagine Donald Trump is still in the White House.

“Canada embarked on a very, very forward-leaning, activist agenda about engaging the U.S., inside and outside of D.C.” when Trump was in office, she said.

“It’s going to be important to have that level of urgency and that level of effort, and not just assume that everything’s good now that Biden’s here.”

The two leaders will also likely discuss Keystone XL, the ill-fated cross-border pipeline expansion that has become a lightning rod for political criticism from both sides of the aisle.

No one expects anything to change on that front; Biden made that abundantly clear by signing the project’s death warrant on Day 1 of his administration, and Ottawa has shown little appetite for a fight.

But there may be more fights in the future, provided the U.S. is serious about meeting its climate-change goals, said Bill Reilly, who led the Environmental Protection Agency from 1989 to 1993 under former president George Bush.

Canada is “very likely to be raising issues that run counter to some of the environmental aspirations that animate the Biden administration,” Reilly told a panel discussion Monday hosted by the American Council for Capital Formation.

“I don’t think some of these issues are going to lend themselves to easy resolution.”

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