by Reid Southwick

A proposal to develop a North American customs-clearance system represents the litmus test for an international effort to increase private-sector competitiveness on the continent, says the acting president of the Atlantic Institute of Market studies.

A select group of chief executives will gather in Quebec on Tuesday to meet with North America’s three political leaders in a bid to strengthen the continent’s economy.

The North American Competitiveness Council will push Prime Minister Stephen Harper, United States President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to move on 51 recommendations to achieve that goal.

Charles Cirtwill said Friday the leaders’ ability to advance the recommendation to develop a customs clearance system, or a network of compatible national systems, will indicate the council’s effectiveness.

The recommendation calls on Harper, Bush and Calderon to look to the information sharing system used in the U.S. to co-ordinate four government agencies, including Homeland Security, in clearing commercial carriers, vehicles and drivers through some of its borders.

Cirtwill said American agencies face a major problem communicating with Homeland Security, a challenge that, if overcome, could serve as a relevant model to use across the continent.

The competitiveness council calls for a system to be developed by 2010.

“If they can get this rather esoteric, but complex, system of information sharing moving, then it sets the tone of everything else,” he said. “And it will also determine their commitment.”

The council divided its recommendations between the three deadlines of 2007, 2008 and 2010.

An immediate step the council recommends is the introduction of pre-clearance pilot projects that were planned, but postponed. The projects were to be tested at major U.S.-Canadian border crossings that include Detroit-Windsor and the Peace Bridge, located between Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont.

The projects are intended to identify people who routinely cross the border and allow them to cross more easily.

“There is a real concern that security barriers, whether it’s new requirements for passports or necessary applications for truck drivers, is making trade more and more difficult,” said Cirtwill. “And that is why these kinds of pilot projects are critical to prove that you can meet these increased security needs but at the same time facilitate trade.”

Cirtwill said the immediate rcommendations, represent actions each country is already taking. But he does not dismiss their importance.

Take the call for increased collaboration on expanding the supply of skilled workers in the energy sector across the continent.

Cirtwill said all three countries are under-utilizing their labour forces. He said Mexico’s ready and capable workforce could come to Canada to work in the Alberta oilsands.

“The council is talking about increased collaboration to expand the supply, and that could happen tomorrow,” he said. “And this increased collaboration is a benefit to all sides.”

Cirtwill said other recommendations improve key areas that affect trade. He pointed to the efforts of Canada and the U.S. to require regulators to reference international technical standards for products that cross their borders.

He said an agreement made Tuesday could compel Mexico, which has been slower to introduce these policies, to start impleneting them.

Cirtwill expects some progress to emerge from the meeting in Quebec.

“The recommendations seem reasonably balanced,” he said.

“They seem to reflect work that is already ongoing and they seem to be reasonable in terms of their timelines “

“I think we should be able to see some very practical(advances).”