Trudeau sings praises of free trade, meets with Lopez Obrador at North America summit

By James McCarten
THE CANADIAN PRESS

MEXICO CITY – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau extolled the virtues of North American free trade to a Mexican audience of business leaders Tuesday – and took a few jabs at the former U.S. president who tried to do away with it.

Trudeau, kicking off his final day in Mexico City for the North American Leaders’ Summit, portrayed Canada as an original architect and the principal guardian of free trade on the continent as he called for a new era of three-way growth.

And as the world struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its sweeping, residual economic effects, he called on would-be investors to take a leap of faith similar to the one the NAFTA pioneers did in the early 1990s.

“Let’s think like people did back when they signed the original NAFTA,” he told executives and academics in a keynote speech organized by Invest in Canada, a federal government offshoot aimed at drumming up foreign direct investment.

“They couldn’t know all the changes and challenges we would face. But they knew that growing our economies, and deepening our ties, would give us all the stability and certainty we needed to weather any storm.”

They also knew that an integrated continental economy would bring any and all opportunities that much closer, he said – “including those they couldn’t even imagine yet.”

NAFTA’s successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, was expected to dominate discussions Wednesday as trade experts and auto sector stakeholders awaited word on one of the major disputes to emerge in the USMCA era.

A dispute panel established under the deal was expected to side with Canada and Mexico and conclude that the Biden administration is misinterpreting the formula that determines how much of a U.S.-made vehicle is deemed to have foreign content.

Trudeau made a point of reminding his audience that it wasn’t so long ago that North American trade was in serious jeopardy at the hands of former president Donald Trump – and that Canada and Mexico together rode to its rescue.

“Motivated by protectionist, isolationist, nativist politics, they were willing to put millions of jobs at stake in each of our countries. Our historic trade deal was in peril, so we reopened it,” Trudeau said.

“In the negotiations, the U.S. repeatedly tried to play off Canada and Mexico against each other. But Canada always believed that our greatest strength was in all three parties negotiating in unison. We understood that North American free trade was about good and fair integration, across the continent.”

Biden departed the summit late Tuesday, leaving it up to Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to conjure the spirit of modern-day, three-way free trade and explore the most overlooked bilateral dynamic on a continent normally far more seized with relations that involve the United States.

The two countries were scheduled to sign a bilateral declaration on Indigenous co-operation before Trudeau’s wrap-up news conference.

On Tuesday, Trudeau and Biden tied up a pair of loose ends, including a workaround for the imperilled Nexus trusted-traveller program and a schedule for the president’s long-delayed first visit to Canada.

A modified form of Nexus, jointly run by the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will be up and running by the spring, said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

The system is currently dealing with a backlog of between 220,000 and 240,000 applications, he added.

The summit’s main trilateral event Tuesday touched on key continental issues, including collective support for Ukraine, the best way forward on gang-ravaged Haiti and the ever-present tide of irregular migration across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Canada said it would purchase a U.S.-made surface-to-air missile system to help Ukraine in its yearlong effort to fend off Russia’s ongoing invasion. Defence Minister Anita Anand said the system, valued at about $406 million, comes from the additional $500 million in military aid to Ukraine that Trudeau announced in November.

But while the U.S. continued to press Canada to take a leadership role in helping to quell rampant gangs and lawlessness in Haiti, Trudeau stopped short of making any firm commitments.

“We need to continue to be there for the people of Haiti – but we need to make sure that the solutions are driven by the people of Haiti themselves,” he said.