12/14/2012 11:51 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

Canada, U.S. cite progress on perimeter deal, note much still to be done

OTTAWA - Legal snags have delayed — but not halted — plans by Canada and the United States to deepen co-operation on cross-border law enforcement.

In a one-year progress report on the highly touted binational perimeter security deal, the two countries said Friday they've made significant progress but realize there's still much work to do.

The deal — being phased in over several years — aims to smooth the passage of goods and people across the 49th parallel while bolstering defences along the continental border.

One outstanding project is the next generation of cross-border law enforcement, which will see police and security officials work even more closely than they do now.

It would build on joint border-policing efforts by creating integrated teams in areas such as intelligence and criminal investigations.

Two pilot projects were supposed to be up and running by last summer, but the progress report says officials are still evaluating the "operational and legal requirements" involved.

"This is going to take legislation in both countries in order to implement, and we've got to work that out," U.S. ambassador David Jacobson said Friday in an interview.

"But the commitment to do it is still there. We are going to get it done as fast as we can, but there is just a snag."

Such delays are to be expected, Jacobson said, given that the countries are embarking on hundreds of changes that touch the daily activities of people on both sides of the border. They affect policing, immigration and cross-border travel, as well as regulatory co-operation on everything from naming meat cuts to standards for lifejackets.

He said he was worried the entire initiative, announced with fanfare last year, might fizzle.

"I was concerned — along with probably a lot of other people — that we'd have a nice press conference and then nobody would hear anything further about it," Jacobson said.

But he's pleased with efforts to put "meat on the bones" in the last year.

The report — divided into sections on border initiatives and regulatory measures — notes that strides have been made on goals including joint privacy principles, mutual recognition of air cargo security standards, expansion of the Nexus trusted traveller program, simultaneous scrutiny of new veterinary drugs and inspection of foreign vessels entering the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway.

"We are not done," Jacobson said.

"This is a process that is going to go on for years. And the level of commitment that has been shown over the past 12 months is going to be shown over the next 12 months, and hopefully the next 12 months after that."

Indeed, an action plan released one year ago included several target dates stretching through 2015.

The countries are developing full implementation of entry-exit tracking of travellers at the land border, negotiation of a customs preclearance agreement for land, rail and marine travel and an update to the existing preclearance procedures for air travel.

Collaboration on more than two dozen regulatory projects will also continue, including an effort to streamline certification of meat and poultry exports. "Work on this front is still in its initial stages and has not advanced as quickly as anticipated," says the report.

On the regulatory front, Canada has done a better job of trying to engage its business community in the reform process, said Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

"Regulation is so vast. We could keep nibbling at the margins like this for a long time before we really had a substantial gain," he said.

"I'd like to see them tackle something really big."

Sands pointed to Australia and New Zealand, which have made a huge push to harmonize regulations and standards virtually across the board.

Still, the fact the Canada-U.S. perimeter security project did not get bogged down during a presidential election year is "the main thing here," he said.

There is a "second chance for a big push" with Barack Obama beginning another term in the White House and Stephen Harper helming a majority government, Sands said.

Jacobson is confident the efforts will pay off.

"When the dust settles, it is going to be much easier for businesses to do business across the border," he said.

"It is going to be much easier for people to move back and forth across the border, and we're going to have a safer and more secure North America."