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Canada's Mexican visa rule to persist, despite warnings that it's bad for trade

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media and guests about infrastructure funding at the Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum & Community Centre in Gormley, Ont., Thursday, February 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media and guests about infrastructure funding at the Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum & Community Centre in Gormley, Ont., Thursday, February 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't be bringing the news his Mexican host wants to hear, nor hearing any himself from U.S. President Barack Obama, as North America's beleaguered Three Amigos converge on Mexico this week.

Officials say Harper will not announce an end to Canada's contentious travel visa on Mexico — an omission that will make the prime minister's trip "an unmitigated disaster," says one analyst who has been advising the Mexican government.

Harper, meanwhile, can expect the cold shoulder from Obama on a major Canada-U.S. irritant: the long-stalled American decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump Alberta oilsands bitumen to the southern Gulf Coast. Obama's unwavering message, according to White House officials? We'll let you know when we've made up our minds.

Caught in the middle will be President Enrique Pena Nieto, who is keen to showcase his country's growing prosperity while kick-starting an ambitious new phase of the moribund Three Amigos club to leverage the newfound energy wealth of all three countries.

Ahead of Obama's arrival, Pena Nieto will host Harper for a separate a bilateral visit that begins Monday, but their tete-a-tete won't bring the announcement Mexico is craving — an end to the 2009 visa the Conservatives imposed on Mexican travellers to curb bogus asylum claims.

"We do not intend to lift the restriction," one government official told The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity because he was speaking in advance of the visit.

"That said, we have implemented a number of measures to ensure ease of entry for legitimate travellers."

Sergio Alcocer Martinez, Mexico's undersecretary for North America, attempted to put his own positive spin on that non-development, despite the anger his country's Canadian ambassador has publicly expressed in recent months about the restrictions.

"We have been working with the Canadian government and we will continue to do that," he said from Mexico City. "We think in the next three months we will accomplish new opportunities for expanding and facilitating travel between our countries."

If the visa is not lifted this week, "the trip will go down as an unmitigated disaster" because it is hurting North America's future prosperity, said Carlo Dade, director of the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation.

Dade, a leading Canadian expert on Latin America, recently returned from Mexico City, where he was advising the government there on Harper's visit.

"This isn't just about Canada-Mexico. This is about North America. The visa was a step backwards in terms of competitiveness for North America," Dade said in an interview.

"The institution of visas was a blow to North American competitiveness. It's a concession the prime minister is going to have to make — not to Mexico, but to North America."

The visa, he said, undermines the Three Amigos core theme of deepening economic ties.

Canada lifted a similar visa on the Czech Republic after signing a free trade deal with the European Union, Dade noted. Other trading blocs around the world, including the Pacific Alliance, have visa-free or streamlined travel policies to allow the free flow of people, so there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case for North America, he said.

The Canadian official, however, spun the visa as a win for the Canadian economy, saying, "visa restrictions have helped reduce bogus claims overall by 85 per cent, approximately, and will save the taxpayers literally hundreds of millions of dollars."

The influential Canadian Council of Chief Executives called for an end to the visa restriction last week. At the least, it suggested the onerous application process could be replaced by a more streamlined, online system.

Dade said deals can't be done on energy or in any other sector of the economy if Mexican travellers face inordinate paperwork associated with the visa.

Mexico has opened up its closed energy sector to foreign investment, and is courting its continental neighbours to invest.

Mexico is keen to expand its internal pipeline system and link it to a broader North America pipeline grid.

But Mexico has no position on whether Obama should approve the Keystone pipeline project and plans to stay out of the issue if it is raised at the summit or on the sidelines, said Alcocer Martinez.

A White House official who briefed reporters said the president won't tell Harper anything he doesn't already know about the long-delayed project: that a minimum 90-day review process has just begun, and "of course, we’ll let our Canadian friends know when we’ve arrived at a decision."

His Canadian counterpart fired back — again, anonymously: "the prime minister has been clear that we believe this project should be approved, as soon as possible, because it represents a tremendous economic opportunity for both Canada and the U.S. and it will create thousands of jobs on both sides of the border."

"We also know that the project can be developed in an environmentally safe way."

Pena Nieto, meanwhile, will be pushing his counterparts to invest new energy in the moribund Three Amigos club, which hasn't met for almost two years and has been widely panned by analysts.

"Let's look at the big picture, the strategic vision, let's see what we can do in terms of North America with energy," Francisco Suarez, the Mexican ambassador to Canada, said in a recent interview.

Suarez said Mexico wants Wednesday's summit "to re-launch the three-way and to work on things which should be trilateral, recognizing that some issues have important differences."

He said there are plenty of investment opportunities for Canadian companies in energy and beyond, including the automobile sector and aerospace.

Mexico is also expanding its rail network, building subway systems in major cities, and expects to double the size of its Gulf of Mexico port in Veracruz, said Suarez.

That too will provide lucrative opportunities to Canadian companies, including one that's already well-placed in Mexico — Montreal's Bombardier.

Harper is expected to travel to the Mexican Bombardier facility in Queretaro before Wednesday's Three Amigos summit, said Suarez.

"It shows not just trade, but production chains and production integration."

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