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Toward more inclusive North American summits?

Christine Fréchette

The sixth annual North American Leaders Summit will be held in Canada this summer. Although a recent phenomenon, these meetings between the prime minister of Canada and the presidents of the United States and Mexico seem straight out of another era, when none but the economic elite were asked their opinion on major political and economic issues. The presence of a greater diversity of actors at these summits would make a more open and representative North American dialogue possible.

An imbalanced structure

Since 2005, the annual highlight of relations between Canada, the United States and Mexico has consisted in holding summit meetings. These meetings provide an opportunity for all three federal government leaders to take stock of their respective situations and discuss major shared issues.

For support in this task and to get advice regarding measures to adopt, they have created the North American Competitiveness Council, a trinational committee made up of corporate representatives. Comprising 30 corporate leaders, the Council is the only organization that has been formally invited to take part in the summits.

While it may be acceptable for government leaders to seek the point of view of large companies on North American governance, it is unjustifiable that they not seek advice from more than one source. The magnitude of issues associated with the region, which is of utmost importance to all three countries in relation to trade, energy, environment and border issues, is too great to be left to a handful of actors, particularly if all from the same sector. The time has come to give new actors a voice on the subject in order to broaden the spectrum of interests for consideration and to involve more actors in the trilateral dynamic.

Diverse actors and interests

A first crucial step would be to establish a formal link between the forum of federated states, which brings together government leaders from Canadian provinces and U.S. and Mexican states, and the North American Leaders Summit. After all, the federated states’ leaders have already been meeting periodically to discuss issues that, more often than not, are the same as those of their federal counterparts.

For example, at the forum of federated states held in June 2009, leaders exchanged ideas primarily on the financial and economic crisis, transportation and infrastructure, as well as energy and climate change. A few days later, the federal officials met to discuss promoting economic stimulus and North America’s competitiveness, co-operation regarding clean energy and climate change, as well as questions related to public security. The similarity between the two agendas is undeniable.

At the conclusion of the summit of federated states, its host, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, made an appeal on behalf of his North American counterparts for Canada, the United States and Mexico to adopt a unified position on greenhouse gas emissions. It is surprising to note that leaders of the federated states were asked to deliver their recommendations
to federal leaders in writing, while the 30 corporate members of the North American Competitiveness Council were allowed to communicate with federal leaders in person.

The input of various levels of government, be it on measures related to trade, transportation or even cross-border water management just to name a few, is not only desirable, but often necessary. In addition, it seems that the best interests of the public would be better guaranteed by the occurrence of a meeting between federal and federated government leaders than by a gathering with 30 corporate leaders. Aside from the benefits likely to result from better co-ordination between the two levels of North American government, it is worth mentioning that the costs resulting from self-contained management could probably be reduced.

With the Buy American Act, we have seen that there is a price to pay for not including the governments of federated states in the North American dynamic. As the government agencies of the federated states had been exempt from the application of Chapter 10 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) concerning government contracts, several U.S. states took advantage of this situation. Following the adoption of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, these states gave preferential treatment to U.S. companies.

More than just business people

A second consideration would be to involve other actors from civil society —in addition to representatives of large companies— in making recommendations to government leaders. For example, the academic community could be officially asked to mobilize. Doing so could bring about a first meeting of North American university presidents or rectors, with an aim to discuss measures intended to strengthen inter-faculty relations and student ties among all three countries. Developing North America’s full potential requires the contribution of an academic community that is fully committed to the analysis of the issues and challenges specific to the region.

Finally, the inclusion of a committee comprising environmental or social non-governmental organizations would make it possible to round out the process of diversifying the powers in attendance and broaden the range of expertise and points of view represented. An initiative of this kind could lead some of these groups to abandon a strictly confrontational approach in favour of a more constructive process.

Implementing such changes would engage North American Leaders Summits in a consolidation phase of regional dialogue. It is hoped that the North American summits will come to reflect a more open approach that gives preference to the contribution of various actors concerned with the issues under discussion.

The North American Leaders Summits’ current consultative structure seems to indicate a bias in favour of the interests of large companies. Whether this is justified or not, it is an anachronism that prejudices the process as a whole. Ideally, the upcoming summit to be held in Canada will mark the beginning of a dialogue that is both more open and representative of the diversity of interests that governments must consider when handling their North American 
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Christine Fréchette is the director of the North American Forum on Integration (NAFI).

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