MEXICO CITY – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in Mexico City with a plan that could pave the way for getting rid of his host’s biggest complaint about Canada — the onerous visa on Mexican travellers.
Trade Minister Ed Fast, who is also in Mexico with the prime minister, has been authorized by the federal cabinet to sign an expanded airline access agreement with Mexico, The Canadian Press has learned.
That agreement would allow Mexican airlines greater access to more cities, and Canadians more direct flights to Mexico.
The expanded air access would likely be a precursor to the Conservative government eventually lifting the controversial visa it slapped on Mexican travellers in 2009 to combat an increase of bogus asylum seekers. Harper isn’t expected to announce a lifting of the visa this week, but the two countries are hopeful the issue can be ironed out in the coming months.
A document dated earlier this month from the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of Harper’s office, authorizes Fast “to sign, on behalf of the Government of Canada, subject to ratification, the agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United Mexican States on air transport.”
Sergio Alcocer Martinez, Mexico’s undersecretary for North America, said the new air agreement would greatly expand the current one between the two countries, which is more than 50 years old. It would allow more direct Mexican flights to Canadian cities, beyond the current routes to Montreal and Toronto.
“The new agreement, which will be signed, is much broader in terms of allowing more companies, more destinations, code shares among the airlines. And that certainly will help our trade, our business people, to move back and forth, as well as tourism,” he told The Canadian Press.
He suggested the air agreement would serve as a precursor to the eventual lifting of the Canadian visa requirement on Mexican travellers, which was imposed in 2009 to curb bogus asylum claims.
“It is important to facilitate the movement of people.”
A Canadian expert on Latin America, who has been advising the Mexican government on the Harper government, said the air access agreement is expected to be one of the main announcements of the bilateral portion of Harper’s visit.
“I can’t fly directly from Calgary, the energy capital of the superpower that is Canada, to Mexico directly,” said Carlo Dade, director of the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation.
“You’ll see a new announcement on flights.”
Mexican officials, not authorized to speak on the record, say that if Canada opens its skies to more air links, it would make no sense to keep the visa in place.
Harper’s plane touched down late Monday afternoon in Mexico City; his only scheduled public event of the day was to place a wreath at the Altar of the Nation, Mexico’s principal war memorial in Chapultepec Park.
The visa irritant has been hanging over Harper’s four-day trip to Mexico.
The Mexican government has complained loudly and publicly about the visa requirement, which it says is invasive, time-consuming and to blame for a major decline in Mexican visitors to Canada.
Dade and other analysts say that Harper won’t have had a successful visit by any measure if he doesn’t supply some sort of relief to the Mexicans on the visa issue.
The powerful Canadian Council of Chief Executives has urged Harper to lift the visa, or at least simplify it with a less onerous on-line process that would be similar to the standard to which the United States subjects Mexican applicants.
“If I have to make two connections to get down to Mexico, am I really going to do that deal? Am I going to open a plant? Am I going to schedule business meetings?” said Dade.
“It’s a pain and has an impact on business.”
Dade said Harper is “going to get to brag about the Mexicans thanking him for lifting the visa” before the week is out.
After his visit on Tuesday with President Enrique Pena Nieto, Harper will take part in the North American leaders’ summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Mexico is pushing for a major reset of so-called Three Amigos summit process.
“I am not expecting great things out of this summit,” said Laura Macdonald, a Canada-Mexico expert with Carleton University in Ottawa.
In a news release, Harper’s office ranks North American economic competitiveness as the top agenda item for the meeting. Other items include energy and the environment and defence and security issues.
“Canada’s relations with the United States and Mexico are of the utmost importance for the long-term prosperity and security of all of our citizens,” Harper said in a statement.
“We look forward to further strengthening and deepening our ties with a view to creating jobs and economic growth in all three countries.”