WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden launched into three-way diplomacy with the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Thursday, celebrating the return of near-annual summits that went dormant during the Trump years. But there were still plenty of differences to sort through over trade, immigration and other matters.
Biden met first with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling their two countries’ relationship one of the easiest in the early going of his presidency.
But as Biden and Trudeau sat down for talks, the president also confirmed that the two leaders had to discuss their differences over proposed electric vehicle tax incentives in his massive social services and climate bill that are causing concern in Ottawa.
"We’re going to talk about that," Biden said. "It hasn’t even passed yet in the House."
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden later met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the three leaders were then meeting together. Trudeau and López Obrador met separately with Vice President Kamala Harris, too.
Trump had an icy relationship with López Obrador's predecessor, pressing Enrique Peña Nieto to never publicly say that Mexico wouldn't pay for a southern U.S. border wall.
But López Obrador appeared to reach a one-issue understanding with Trump: Mexico slowed the flow of Central American migrants trying to reach the U.S. border, and Trump often appeared to turn a blind eye to just about every other facet in the complicated relationship.
López Obrador offered warm words for Biden when they appeared before the cameras at the start of their meeting Thursday. The two leaders discussed Mexico's relations with the U.S. under Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, before the portraits of both that Biden has displayed prominently in the Oval Office.
The Mexican president drove home that Biden is treating his government with respect, something he noted has not always been a given in the two countries' long history.
"From the first time we talked over the phone with the president already in office, he mentioned that we would not be seen as the backyard of the United States, and we are thankful for that" López Obrador said of Biden.
Canada, meanwhile, is concerned about a provision in Biden's spending plan that would offer American consumers a $7,500 tax credit if they buy electric vehicles through 2026. The following year, only purchases of electric vehicles made in the U.S. would qualify for the credit. The base credit would go up by $4,500 if the vehicle was made at a U.S. plant that operates under a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement.
The union provision has sparked pushback from some non-union shops and lawmakers. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden "is pretty committed to the bill providing good-paying union jobs."
Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Wednesday called the incentive a clear violation of an updated trade agreement among the three countries that aimed to protect U.S. jobs and products made in North America.
Freeland said that for Canada, "Job one here in the U.S. this week is to really make our American counterparts aware of the extent to which their current approach to this issue is a problem for Canada and to really explain to them that the way they have formulated this incentive really, really has the potential to become the dominant issue in our bilateral relationship."
As Biden, Trudeau and Lopez Obrador resume the tradition of the North America Leaders' Summit, the three allies also face deep differences on migration and climate issues.
There's "not that much in common between them, at least in their vision for what they want for their countries," said Kenneth Frankel, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas. "Not just what they want for their countries, but what they can deliver for their countries."
Thursday's meetings at the White House marks the first trilateral get-together for North American leaders since a June 2016 gathering of Trudeau, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto in Ottawa. The gatherings took a hiatus under Trump, who feuded with Trudeau and Nieto during his tenure.
Biden has made some progress in repairing relations with U.S. neighbors after the turbulent Trump years. But many significant strains remain — and some new ones have emerged.
Mexico’s priorities heading into the summit were to obtain concrete advances on immigration and more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The tradition of three-way meetings started when George W. Bush played host to Mexico's Vicente Fox and Canada's Paul Martin in 2005 for talks at his ranch in Waco, Texas.
Biden has already held separate virtual meetings with Trudeau in February and López Obrador in March.
The U.S. and Canada, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that López Obrador has failed to get on board with global efforts to curb climate emissions. The Mexican president skipped this month's U.N. climate summit in Glasgow.
López Obrador’s government, for its part, wants promised U.S. development funds for the Northern Triangle countries of Central America to be firmed up. The Mexican leader continues to press the U.S. to fund an expansion of his tree planting program to Central America.
Mexico has worked with the United States — under both Trump and Biden — to control migrant flows and assist in returning migrants to Central America. The two countries are still negotiating the court-ordered re-implementation of a Trump-era policy known as Remain in Mexico, which forced asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. asylum process in Mexico. Psaki said that the policy was not expected to be a major topic of discussions at Thursday's meeting.
López Obrador has also mentioned on multiple occasions his interest in the U.S. government expanding its temporary work visa program so more Mexicans and Central Americans can fill the demand for labor in the U.S. The temporary workers in turn could have access to the higher pay they seek in the U.S. without becoming part of the illegal immigration flow.
Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said López Obrador would focus on three issues: the pandemic, economic integration and immigration. On immigration, Ebrard said Mexico would try to rally support for two of López Obrador’s signature social programs — tree planting and youth job opportunities — to reduce the push factors of migration.
Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, recently expressed "serious concerns" about the Mexican government’s attempts to limit competition in the electrical power sector.
Trudeau and Biden are also expected to discuss the future of an oil pipeline that crosses part of the Great Lakes and is the subject of rising tension over whether it should be shut down. Biden is caught in a battle over Enbridge’s Line 5, a key segment of a pipeline network that carries Canadian oil across the U.S. Midwest.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and Biden ally, has demanded closure of the 68-year-old line because of the potential for a catastrophic rupture along a 4-mile section (6.4 kilometers) in the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The Biden administration has not taken a position but is under increasing pressure to do so.
Canada last month invoked a 1977 treaty that guarantees the unimpeded transit of oil between the two nations.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.