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Harper, Pena Nieto meeting in Mexico; precursor to Three Amigos summit Wednesday

MEXICO CITY - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet today with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto — a warm-up of sorts for Wednesday, when the two join U.S. President Barack Obama at their North American leaders' summit.

Harper is in Mexico City with a plan that could pave the way for getting rid of his host's biggest complaint about Canada — a visa requirement for Mexican visitors.

Trade Minister Ed Fast will be signing an expanded airline access agreement that would allow Mexican airlines greater access to more cities in Canada, 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.

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.

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.

It would also 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, he said.

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.

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.

"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."

Mexico is pushing for a major reset of so-called Three Amigos summit process.

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."

The Canadian Press


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