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PM waffles on climate, stands firm on visas at Leaders' Summit in Mexico

North American leaders wrapped up a two-day summit in Guadalajara, Mexico today with official declarations on climate change and combatting swine flu. However, there was no agreement on the touchy diplomatic subject of visas for Mexicans visiting Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon participated in the North American Leader's Summit, an annual event started as part of the Security and Prosperty Partnership (SPP) initiative.

The declaration on H1N1 (swine) flu lauds the “strong record of our trilateral cooperation” in addressing the outbreak earlier this year while committing to increasing communication and support in advance of the fall flu season.

Similarly, the declaration on climate change and clean energy is long on promises of cooperation and short on specifics. However, it does reiterate commitments -- including that "developed countries [should reduce] emissions by at least 80% compared to 1990 or more recent years by 2050" -- made at the G8 summit earlier this summer that raised eyebrows by exceeding any Canadian government commitments.

The declaration committed to “conduct further work” on a proposal by Mexico to have countries contribute to an international “Green Fund” based on their GDP and per capita emission levels that would finance greenhouse gas reduction levels in developing countries. However, “other views presented for scaling-up financing from both public and private sources” would also be considered.

A statement released by Prime Minister Harper's office, seemed to downplay the climate change declaration as routine discussions:

On energy and climate change: given the integrated nature of our economies, we did talk at some length about the importance of working together on a North American approach to climate change and also on doing our best to ensure that out of Copenhagen and going forward, we reach an effective and genuinely international new world protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

In reading out the statement at a joint press conference, Harper almost skipped over the paragraph on climate change, and had to go back and say “Sorry, excuse me, I just about missed energy and climate change.”

However, President Obama's statement at the same event suggested both countries were charging ahead:

Nations like the United States and Canada will take the lead by reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and we will work with other nations to cut global emissions in half. Indeed, we made progress toward the concrete goals that will be negotiated at the Copenhagen climate change summit in December.

The official joint statement from the three leaders at the conclusion of the summit also included commitments to review the Inter-American Development Bank to ensure it is reacting effectively to the economic recession, to improve border infrastructure to facilitate trade, to “cooperate in the protection of intellectual property rights to facilitate the development of innovative economies” and continue to harmonize regulations, to avoid trade protectionism while improving the functioning of NAFTA's labour and environmental side agreements. and to improve cooperation in fighting crime cartels.

The statement also said that the leaders had “thoroughly discussed the coup in Honduras and reaffirm our support for the San José Accord and the ongoing OAS effort to seek a peaceful resolution of the political crisis - a resolution which restores democratic governance and the rule of law and respects the rights of all Hondurans.”

Although both Harper and Obama, in various statements, repeated their support for the Mexican government's fight against violent drug cartels, Harper continued to avoid connecting that issue to the problem of a huge rise in Mexicans claiming refugee status in Canada, and the resulting decision by the federal government to require that Mexicans obtain visas before travelling here.

Since 2005, Mexico has been the single greatest source of refugee claimants in Canada. Many claim that their safety in Mexico is threatened due to gang violence. Although approximately 90 per cent are eventually refused refugee status -- told to seek help from Mexican authorities or move to a different part of that country -- the extreme backlogs in Canada's refugee claim system allow them to stay in the country for years before a final decision is made.

However, in response to a question at this morning's press conference, Harper continued to portray Mexican refugee claimants as fraudulent, and hinted at changes to Canada's refugee legislation which could allow a faster refusal of refugee claims without a broad visa requirement.

"We need additional tools from our parliament to stem the flow of bogus refugee claimants and also to have additional tools to deal with this kind of problem," he said.

Exactly what “tools” are being considered is not clear, but legislation is expected to be tabled in the fall. Some possible changes that have been mentioned include allowing front-line immigration officers to make initial decisions on claims and fast-tracking claims from countries like Mexico with a high rejection rate, in order to discourage spurious claims from those who just hope to work in Canada for a few years.

In response to the same question, President Calderon described the visa imposition as a “rejection” of Mexico which “certainly gets in the way of a good relationship.” However, he said that “I certainly have the obligation of ensuring that a specific topic on the bilateral agenda not deter reaching our full potential of other matters on the agenda.”

The 2010 North American Leaders' Summit will be held in Canada. Details have not been announced.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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