President George W. Bush will soon host what has become an annual “Three Amigos Summit.” The leaders of Mexico, the United States, and Canada will be gathering in New Orleans on April 21 and 22. What do you suppose is on the agenda? A rational response to immigration, perhaps? A thoughtful renegotiation of the unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement? Lessons from Canada’s affordable medicines program?

No. No. And no. Rather than putting their heads together around pressing issues such as these, the three leaders will be advancing a so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). And while that may sound well and good, this initiative, begun in 2005, is unlikely to produce either security or prosperity. That’s because the partnership is only with big business.

The chief executives of Wal-Mart, Chevron, and 28 other large corporations are in on the closed-door negotiations, while members of Congress, journalists, and ordinary citizens are excluded. And the secrecy is not just around the presidential summits, but also the meetings of about 20 SPP working groups that carry on negotiations over the course of the year.

What’s on the table? Not much is public, but we do know that the executive powers of the three countries are hammering out regulatory changes that they claim do not require legislative approval. And given who’s in the room, it’s a safe bet that these changes will favor narrow corporate interests over the public good.

The official corporate advisory body, called the North American Competitive Council (NACC), made 51 proposals to the SPP negotiators last year on issues as varied as taxation and patent rights. The NACC later boasted that “all three of our governments have committed themselves to taking action on many of our recommendations.”

Bad on Process and Substance

In essence, the SPP represents the privatization of policymaking. And so it’s not surprising that on top of the outrageously anti-democratic process, there are also strong reasons to be concerned about the substance of SPP decisions. Here are just a few:

First, at a time when the Democratic presidential candidates have kicked up a long overdue debate over NAFTA, the SPP would actually expand this flawed policy. Even though the lifting of trade and investment barriers under the trade pact failed to create the promised good, stable jobs, the SPP is further chipping away at remaining economic regulations. For example, at the last SPP summit, the three leaders announced a weakening of NAFTA’s “rules of origin” to allow products with a lower level of national content to receive preferential tariff treatment. This will undermine domestic industries by making trade in products from third countries like China even more profitable.

Second, the SPP could exacerbate tensions over energy resources and deepen our dependence on fossil fuels. Under the guise of a “North American integrated energy market,” there is evidence that the U.S. government and corporations are aiming to gain greater control over its neighbors’ resources. One SPP agreement, for example, reflects the corporate advisors’ recommendations to promote energy privatization in Mexico – this in spite of a massive citizens’ movement in that country, which has fought long and hard to prevent their nation’s oil industry from being handed over to global corporations. In Canada, progressive activists are up in arms over an SPP report that envisioned a fivefold increase in environmentally destructive oil production from tar sands, with most of the increase to be exported to the United States.

Third, the SPP talks are aimed at expanding the militarized U.S. security perimeter to all of North America, with disturbing implications for civil liberties. The three countries have vowed to join forces against not only external but also “internal” threats, and Mexico and Canada have already agreed to share vast amounts of information with the U.S. government, including the fingerprints of refugees and asylum seekers. The Bush administration is also offering Mexico a multi-billion-dollar military aid package under the Merida Initiative (also known as Plan Mexico). While the new equipment is supposedly to combat drug cartels, many organizations have expressed concerns that it may also end up being used against political dissidents and immigrants.

Progressive vs. Conservative Critiques

Although the SPP has been the target of strong criticism from progressive groups in Canada and Mexico, right-wing anti-immigrant forces have dominated the discourse in the United States. And while there is unity among critics of all political stripes when it comes to denouncing the SPP’s secretive process, there are vast differences on substance.

Xenophobic groups like the Minutemen and the John Birch Society fear that the three governments are secretly plotting to erase U.S. borders and surrender its sovereignty through some sort of merger a la the European Union. In reality, the SPP vision is nearly the polar opposite of many of the founding pillars of the EU:

  • The EU includes political institutions, including the European Parliament, which represents all the member countries’ citizens. As stated above, SPP negotiators are only interested in hearing the perspectives of big business.
  • The EU has tackled inequalities directly by transferring massive funds from richer countries to poorer countries and regions. As a result, once-poor countries like Ireland, Spain, and Portugal have become strong trading partners for the rest of the Union. By contrast, SPP negotiators are perpetuating the false assumption behind NAFTA that free markets alone will lift all boats. The aid being offered is to boost Mexico’s military power, not to reduce inequalities.
  • The EU enforces strong social and environmental standards that help ensure economic benefits are broadly shared and support sustainable development. The SPP negotiators are doing nothing to fix the extremely weak NAFTA side agreements on labor and the environment that have allowed corporations to continue to abuse workers and communities, particularly in Mexico, with impunity.
  • Thanks to their efforts to narrow economic gaps, the EU has been able to have an internal “open borders” policy without destabilizing migration flows. Contrary to the anti-immigrant paranoia, the SPP negotiators are not contemplating any loosening of borders, even as a long-term goal. Instead, they aim to facilitate transit only of so-called “legitimate people,” while expanding border surveillance infrastructure to keep out other migrants. While the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the coming together of east and west Europe, the increasingly fortified wall between the United States and Mexico is a harsh sign of North America’s deep divisions.

Of course, it is important not to over-romanticize the European Union. They have their own xenophobia problems, with anti-immigrant political parties on the rise in several countries. Moreover, Europe’s trade policies towards developing countries are about as bad as those of the United States, and even within the EU, progressive forces are battling efforts to erode social protections.

However, the EU’s internal integration model still offers some important lessons for our part of the world. And with both Democratic Presidential candidates promising to renegotiate NAFTA, this is an important moment for looking at alternative approaches.

In March, four broad-based citizens’ networks from all three countries, the Alliance for Responsible Trade (United States), Common Frontiers (Canada), the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade, and the Quebec Network on Hemispheric Integration produced a detailed set of proposals for NAFTA’s renegotiation. Like the EU, this new NAFTA would require strong enforcement of labor rights and environmental laws. And rather than boosting military aid, it would encourage greater cooperation between our three countries to create stable livelihoods for family farmers, as well as for the small and medium businesses that provide most of our region’s jobs.

If they’re really serious about security and prosperity, the “Three Amigos” would be discussing these types of alternatives. Instead, they are building a fortress North America in which large corporations (but not ordinary citizens) have even more power.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Manuel Pérez-Rocha directs the NAFTA Plus and the SPP Advocacy project, which is part of the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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