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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama after taking part in a joint press conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington on Feb. 4, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

U.S. and Canadian negotiators have successfully concluded talks on a new deal to integrate continental security and erase obstacles to cross-border trade.

Negotiators have reached agreement on almost all of the three dozen separate initiatives in the Beyond the Border action plan, said sources who cannot be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The few remaining items mostly involve questions of wording and should be settled in time for an announcement in late September.

The most crucial phase then lies ahead, as both the Canadian and U.S. governments try to sell the proposals to their respective publics. A new poll suggests that in Canada, at least, that could be harder than it would have been a few years ago, although with a majority government, the Conservatives can pass any legislation that may be required, barring massive public opposition.

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The stakes are high on the initiative, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama announced together in Washington last winter. Mr. Harper has told individuals in private meetings that he sees the Beyond the Border talks as the most ambitious advance in Canada-U.S. relations since the Free Trade Agreement of 1988.

Without an agreement, the non-tariff barriers that have increasingly obstructed the border since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could remain in place and worsen.

The two governments are hoping that Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama will unveil the proposals themselves, although there are difficulties co-ordinating the leaders' schedules.

Opponents have raised alarms that an agreement would cost Canadians both sovereignty and personal privacy. But failure to implement the agreements could further impair the world's most extensive trading relationship, and put manufacturing jobs across the country at risk.

Details of the agreement are closely held. But goals outlined earlier include specific proposals to co-ordinate and align such things as biometrics on passports, watch lists, inspection of containers at overseas ports and other security measures.

The new agreement respects privacy laws in both countries, the sources said.

Both Americans and Canadians support the idea of closer co-operation on national security, a new poll conducted by Nanos Research and the State University of New York at Buffalo suggests, but their level of that support is declining.

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When asked if they supported closer border security co-operation between the two countries, 64 per cent of Canadians and 71 per cent of Americans agreed. But six years ago, when memories of the Sept. 11 attacks were fresher, Canadian support was at 73 per cent and U.S. support at 81 per cent.

Getting Canadians to back the deal "is not necessarily a slam dunk, but there's a lot of good will there," Nik Nanos said in an interview. The positive attitude of most Canadians toward President Obama, he said, will help Mr. Harper.

The action plan is expected to propose making it easier to obtain temporary worker permits and documents such as the NEXUS card to circumvent Customs lineups. Factory shipments could be prescreened at the factory rather than at the border to ease passage.

The sources said much of what is proposed will not require legislation, although some if it will require budget outlays.

Canadians who believe that the United States has sold its liberty because of fears for its security, or who resist any further economic integration with the troubled economic giant, are likely to oppose the Beyond the Border proposals.

South of the border, protectionist forces in the United States might oppose granting Canada easier access to U.S. markets through a more porous border. However, with unemployment the No. 1 concern in the United States, increased economic and security co-operation could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

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Some business leaders and others have said they seek the virtual elimination of any barriers to the flow of goods and people across the border. But nothing that ambitious is likely possible in either country.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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