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Updated: Tue, 18 Feb 2014 17:13:16 GMT | By The Canadian Press, cbc.ca

Harper, Pena Nieto see air deal signed, meet ahead of Three Amigos summit



Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Canada and Mexico have sealed an agreement to expand air travel between the two countries and renewed their vows to foster mutual economic growth.

Ministers formally signed the travel deal Tuesday under the watchful eye of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The two countries also renewed their long-standing "joint action plan" to foster economic growth, security, immigration and trade.

Meet on eve of summit

Harper's meeting with Pena Nieto will serve as a warm-up of sorts for Wednesday, when they join U.S. President Barack Obama in a North American leaders' summit.

Earlier in the day, as he met with Mexican business leaders, Harper said Canada needs to do more to close its trade deficit with Mexico while attracting more investment from its southern neighbour.

While the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement has fostered commercial growth between the two countries, there are still wrinkles to iron out, he suggested.

"It's a very unbalanced relationship," Harper said.

"Trade flows have gone up enormously, but mostly on the Mexican side. Investment flows have gone up enormously, but almost entirely on the Canadian side. So we probably want to take a look at what we can do to grow some of those things more in a more balanced way."

In 2012, Canada imported $25.5 billion from Mexico while Canada exported about $5.4 billion to Mexico, the Prime Minister's Office said.

But Carlo Dade, director of the centre for trade and investment policy at the Canada West Foundation, a think tank, says Canada has largely failed to take advantage of the access with Mexico it gained under NAFTA.

“We’ve largely missed the rise of the Mexican middle class, whose economy is larger than Canada's and who have signed more free trade agreements than we have,” Dade said in an interview with CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.

He said Canada's "mixed signals" on the visa issue have upset the Mexican business community.

"North American competitiveness is taking a hit as we become one of the few trade blocks around the globe that put increased restrictions on travel while all our competitors — Europe, the Pacific Alliance, Asia — are reducing measures to prevent travel," Dade said.

Visas a major irritant

The expanded air access agreement, meanwhile, could 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.

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.

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.

On Monday, Harper kicked off his visit by placing a wreath at the Altar of the Nation, Mexico's principal war memorial in Chapultepec Park.

The main event of the trip is Wednesday's one-day summit between the three leaders. Mexico has been pushing for a major reset of the so-called Three Amigos summit process.

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