June 27, 2005

NAFTA nations to boost security, cut red tape

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The United States, Canada and Mexicowill further boost security by agreeing on common rules ofissuing visas to outsiders and cut red tape seen as hamperingfree trade, officials said on Monday.

The proposals were the first to be made since leaders ofthree nations -- partners in the North American Free TradeAgreement -- vowed in March to improve security and unifybusiness practices.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 suicide attacks, Washingtonmade clear to Canada and Mexico that its security needs trumpthe large trade flows within NAFTA.

This means Canada -- which sends 80 percent of its exportsto the United States -- is under heavy pressure to comply withits neighbor's demands. It was unclear to what extent Canadaand Mexico would have to match U.S. rules, and to what extentthe United States might show flexibility.

The three countries said they will create compatible borderscreening measures to look for high-risk individuals and cargoand harmonize the way they process visas for outsiders.

"The vision is to eventually have a common theory of how wescreen to make sure dangerous people and dangerous cargo do notenter our waterways, our airways or our land areas," said U.S.Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff.

The countries will study how to develop immigration systemsusing high-tech biometric identity documents.

The topic is particularly sensitive for Canada's minorityLiberal government, which relies on support from a smallleft-leaning party which is highly suspicious of what it seesas further integration with the United States.

Canada and the United States have different visa rules, butCanadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said she did notexpect major problems coming up with one set of standards.

Senior officials from the three countries also vowed to endwhat Canadian Industry Minister David Emerson called "thetyranny of small differences" -- similar but not identicalregulatory practices which mean some products entering NAFTAhave to be examined three separate times.

"We need to test products once and then sell them in allthree markets," Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez told anews conference.

The three nations will also pursue the "elimination ofdistortions adversely affecting North American steel markets,"make border crossings easier and improve food safety.