The much-discussed "NAFTA Superhighway" may be an urban myth. But like many myths, this one is solidly rooted in reality, in this case the details of the little known Security and Prosperity Partnership between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It's the reality, not the myth, which is sparking resistance in all three countries.
The reality is that business and security interests would trump environmental and human rights concerns if SPP proceeds.
The SPP controversy has its origins in Canada, where business groups worried they would be locked out of the U.S. market by post-9/11 border security measures. At the so-called "Three Amigos" summit in Waco, Texas, in 2005, President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin launched the SPP "to increase security and enhance prosperity among the three countries through greater cooperation." Their first move was to appoint 13 working groups, 10 dealing with commerce and three dealing with security. Think of it as NAFTA meets the Patriot Act.
It is the transportation working group that called for establishment of "multi-modal transportation corridors," combining super-ports, super-highways, rail, electric lines and perhaps water pipelines.
A year later, meeting in Cancun, the Three Amigos established the North American Competitiveness Council, to provide "high level business input" to advance the process of economic and political integration across the North American national borders.
Rather than thinking of this as a North American Union, as some fear, think of it more like a corporate merger, negotiated privately, bringing together business interests but leaving other interests behind.
The SPP plan overlaps considerably with visions of business-oriented think tanks, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Other groups, including the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies have gotten into the act as well, with a plan called "Atlantica," to more closely link the economies of the Canadian Maritimes with northern New England and upstate New York.
In business-speak, the purpose of Atlantica is to reduce "barriers to trade." National borders are the most obvious barriers. But the independent actions of hundreds of local, state, and provincial governments could be considered barriers, too. And just as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, unleashed a sweeping assault on the traditional authority of state and local governments, the establishment of Atlantica would reduce the ability of democratic governments to defend the interests of their citizens.
A growing number of Canadians are unhappy about Atlantica and the SPP, and plan to hold nonviolent demonstrations and educational events in Montebello, Quebec, where President Bush will meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper on Aug. 20.
"These big business lobbies claim that the only way to boost individual provincial economies is to take provinces out of the picture completely," according to the Council of Canadians, our northern neighbor's largest public interest group. "They want to do this by creating a massive bi-national trading bloc where wages are lower, unions are smaller, and the regulations protecting our health and environment are much weaker."
What the SPP outlines is not a massive infrastructure project, though such projects certainly fit within its political framework. Instead, it intends to further "harmonize" regulations between the three countries. But because it is primarily big business interests meeting with government officials, the new harmony is likely to be one in which environmental protection, the rights of workers to have decent jobs and the right to organize, and the ability of local governments to act on their own are likely to be left out in the name of "competitiveness."
Before we get onto any kind of highway toward further economic and political integration, let's make sure it is well enough lit that we can see where we are going and who is driving.