US President Barack Obama and leaders of Mexico and Canada pledged on Wednesday to improve their massive North American trade links at a summit shadowed by friction between the neighbors.
The one-day talks hosted by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in an ornate state government palace in Toluca, near Mexico City, sought to find ways to revitalize the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Pena Nieto said the summit with Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper aimed to make North America the “most competitive region in the world.”
The three governments have no plans to reopen NAFTA, which is worth US$1 trillion a year, proposing instead to modernize it through a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership project that Washington hopes will be completed this year.
Obama conceded that he faced opposition to the deal from “elements” in his own Democratic party.
“What I’ve said to President Pena Nieto and Prime Minister Harper is that we’ll get this passed if it’s a good agreement,” Obama told a news conference.
Obama and Harper praised Pena Nieto for a ambitious economic and energy reforms he has passed through the Mexican Congress.
However, sources of tensions remained unresolved.
Obama gave no hint to Harper as to whether his administration would finally make up its mind on the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry crude from Canada’s oil sands to Texas.
Obama repeated that US Secretary of State John Kerry is still deliberating.
“There is a process that has been gone through, and I know it’s been extensive, and at times I’m sure Stephen feels a little too laborious,” Obama said.
Harper said: “My views in favor of the project are very well known. His views on the process are also equally well known. And we had that discussion and will continue on that discussion.”
Meanwhile, Obama told Pena Nieto that immigration reform remains one of his highest priorities.
Obama did not indicate how he would break Republican resistance in the US Congress to legislation to change the status of 11 million illegal immigrants, many of them Mexicans.
Mexico and Canada have their own dispute over tough visa requirements imposed by Ottawa on Mexican travelers in 2009 to curb an influx of refugee applications.
Pena Nieto called on Harper after a meeting in Mexico City on Tuesday to find a solution to eliminate the visas “in a near future.”
Despite these disagreements, Pena Nieto said the summit allowed the three leaders to strengthen their friendship, taking Obama and Harper to a botanical garden and lunching with them.
The allies issued a joint declaration saying they would create a “North American Trusted Traveler Program” to facilitate trips for their citizens, promote student exchanges and improve border infrastructure.
They also moved to protect a symbol of the region by creating a working group to ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly, which migrates from Canada to Mexico every year, but whose population has been in decline.