MONTEBELLO, Quebec (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush assured the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Tuesday that the United States wants to forge closer ties, despite the distraction of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and differences over immigration and the Arctic.
Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon pledged closer economic and security relationships, but did not shy away from voicing disagreements at what was dubbed the “Three Amigos Summit.”
The gathering aimed to freshen friendships among the North American neighbors that critics say the United States neglected after the September 11 attacks.
Both Harper and Calderon were interested in furthering the trade relationship, although neither wanted to appear too close to Bush, who is unpopular in both of their countries.
Calderon cut his trip to Canada short to deal with fallout from Hurricane Dean which hit Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Bush said the United States was discussing with Mexico a “robust” package of aid to help combat drug trafficking but details were still being worked out.
Calderon said he told Bush that Mexico did not want American soldiers on the ground as part of any drug enforcement strategy, as has happened in other countries.
Mexico has been frustrated by increasingly tough U.S. border policies and by the collapse in Congress of a push to overhaul U.S. immigration laws. Bush said border and migration were complicated issues.
The three leaders expressed confidence in their financial systems despite turmoil in U.S. markets. “The fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong,” Bush said at a news conference.
Protests were muted on the last day of the two-day summit at a chateau by the Ottawa River. About two dozen protesters paddled canoes from Ottawa, including the “Raging Grannies,” a group of elderly women activists. “We have no access to yachts unlike some of the people in the Chateau Montebello,” said Jessica Squires, a spokeswoman for the group.
Critics say broadening economic ties among the three trading partners would erode national sovereignty and closer anti-terrorism cooperation could lead to human rights abuses.
But Harper said it was important to work together, giving an example of a business leader who manufactured jelly beans but had to maintain separate inventories because the content rules were different in Canada and the United States.
“Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jelly bean? You know, I don’t think so,” he said.
A joint statement said a North American plan for avian and pandemic influenza and an intellectual property action strategy had been completed.
For next year, when the United States hosts the summit, the focus will include strengthening standards with other trading partners to prevent unsafe food and products from entering North America.
“We agreed to work together on consumer protection. We have to identify and stop unsafe goods from entering our country, especially those designed for our children,” Harper said in apparent reference to Chinese toys and other products.
Harper discussed Canada’s concerns about Russia’s symbolic laying of claim to the North Pole, where it placed a flag on the seabed. Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage of the Arctic, but the United States views it as an international strait.
In Afghanistan, where Canada has 2,600 troops, Harper appears prepared to pull out by February 2009 since opposition parties oppose an extension.
Additional reporting by Louise Egan and Randall Palmer