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Biden seeks common ground with Mexico and Canada at summit but tensions remain

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U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Canadian and Mexican leaders on Thursday for their first North American summit in five years in a bid to revitalize regional cooperation that was shadowed by tensions over Biden’s “Buy American” agenda and immigration.

Biden met separately at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and then held a gathering with all three.

The talks were aimed at finding common ground among the three neighbors bound together by the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) free trade agreement, which governs some $1.5 trillion a year in North American trade.

But differences over the auto industry, Biden’s “Buy American” policies and a Mexican energy bill weighed on the summit. The United States and Canada also appeared at an impasse over a Biden administration proposal for tax credits on U.S.-made electric vehicles, which Ottawa says violates trade agreements.

While no major breakthroughs were announced, Biden had hoped to make headway on the thorniest challenges with America’s two biggest neighbors, including easing immigration pressures, reducing trade friction, recovering from the global pandemic and competing better with an increasingly assertive China.

“Our North American vision for the future draws on our shared strengths,” Biden said, sitting at a long table that allowed the leaders to maintain distance in keeping with COVID-19 protocol.

“We have to end the pandemic and take decisive action to curb the climate crisis. We have to drive an inclusive economic recovery,” Biden said. “We have to manage the challenge of unprecedented migration in our hemisphere.”

Following the summit, the White House announced agreements to develop a North American strategy to reduce methane and a pledge for all three nations to donate COVID-19 vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The meetings are a result of a push by Biden to revive the so-called Three Amigos, a working group ditched by his predecessor Donald Trump. The leaders will reconvene in Mexico next year, the White House said. Resetting ties with Mexico and Canada is part of Biden’s effort to turn the page on the Trump era, shifting away from his predecessor’s strident go-it-alone approach to a more collaborative style. Trump had especially fraught dealings with Trudeau, imposing tariffs on some Canadian goods and sometimes hurling public insults at the Canadian premier. Lopez Obrador, a left-wing populist, was able to forge an unlikely working relationship with Trump despite the Republican president’s economic threats and insults against Mexicans over migration.

Nearly 10 months after taking office, Biden could use a diplomatic bright spot. He faces sagging approval ratings and is trying to tamp down inflation and supply chain issues while grappling with record numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Biden is under domestic pressure to curb the sharp increase in migrants’ crossings, which Republican opponents have derided as an “open border” policy, and he needs Mexico‘s cooperation.

In brief remarks to reporters during bilateral talks, Biden – holding his first in-person meeting with Lopez Obrador since taking office in January – said migration was among the main issues they were tackling, but did not elaborate.

Sitting alongside Biden, Lopez Obrador thanked the president for proposals that could improve the status of many long-time immigrants to the United States, and he urged U.S. lawmakers to back such a move. The fate of any Biden immigration initiative remained uncertain in the U.S. Congress.

FORCED LABOR

The leaders also committed to banning imports of goods made with forced labor, a policy Biden’s administration has been aiming at China. Activists and Western politicians accuse China of using forced labor in its northwestern Xinjiang province, an allegation Beijing denies.

Sounding the alarm about Beijing, Lopez Obrador said during the three-way meeting that greater North American economic integration, including “stopping the rejection of migrants” needed for the U.S. and Canadian labor force, would be the best way to face “the productive and commercial expansion of China.”

Lopez Obrador’s prescription appeared to echo Mexican Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier’s call for the United States to “buy North American” instead of adopting protectionist measures.

The Mexican president warned that North American countries could be headed for an “unacceptable imbalance” of economic power with China that “would keep alive the temptation of trying to resolve this disparity by use of force.”

The Biden administration has taken a tough rhetorical line with Beijing on a range of issues, though a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping earlier this week sought to lower the temperature.

Canada has also had rocky relations with China.

Closer to home, Canada and Mexico are worried about Biden’s “Buy American” provisions and a proposed electric-vehicle tax credit that would favor unionized, U.S.-based manufacturers.

The credit is included in the sweeping $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” legislation that was also being voted on by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

Canada says the tax credit would violate USMCA rules. The White House insisted on Thursday that it does not.

In remarks to reporters following the summit, Trudeau said the American side heard Canada’s concerns abut the credit very clearly and that Canada would continue to pursue the issue. He also raised concerns about the Buy American procurement plans, noting that there would always be challenges in a relationship as deep as the U.S.-Canadian one.

In a statement following the meeting, the Mexican government said proposal by Lopez Obrador to work on substituting imports was well received.

(Additional reporting by Merdie Nzanga in Washington; Dave Graham and Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Daniel Wallis, Sandra Maler and Michael Perry)

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Putin says Russia will follow up fast after Ukraine call with Biden

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would send ideas to Washington within a week to follow up his talks with U.S. President Joe Biden on the Ukraine crisis.

Neither side spoke of a breakthrough after the two-hour video call but they agreed to keep talking about what the Kremlin called “this complex confrontational situation”.

“We agreed we will continue this discussion and we’ll do it in a substantive way. We will exchange our ideas in the very near future. Russia will draw up its ideas literally in the coming days, within a week we will give this to the U.S. side to consider,” Putin told reporters.

The two leaders used Tuesday’s call to set out their opposing positions on Ukraine, which says it is braced for a possible invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops close to its border.

Biden warned Putin that the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Moscow if it invaded, while Putin demanded guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward.

In his first public comments since the conversation, Putin said it was “provocative” to pose the question of whether Russia planned to attack Ukraine, and once again accused Kyiv and NATO of threatening Russia’s security.

“We cannot fail to be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine’s possible admission to NATO, because this will undoubtedly be followed by the deployment there of military contingents, bases and weapons that threaten us,” he said.

It would be “criminal inaction” on Russia’s part not to respond, he said.

“We are working on the assumption that our concerns, at least this time, will be heard.”

FIGHTER JETS

Russia, Ukraine and NATO have all stepped up military exercises as tensions have mounted in the past month.

Russian military aircraft were scrambled on Wednesday to escort French Rafale and Mirage fighter jets flying over the Black Sea, RIA news agency quoted the defence ministry as saying.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it had handed a note of protest to the U.S. embassy over “dangerous” flights of U.S. and NATO military planes near Russia’s borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed Biden’s “personal role” in trying to attain peace in eastern Ukraine, where Ukraine says more than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting with Russian-backed separatists.

Zelenskiy said he hoped Ukraine and Russia could agree a new ceasefire and prisoner exchanges when their representatives held talks on the conflict in Ukraine’s easterly Donbass region on Wednesday.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters the talks between Biden and Putin had served the purpose of “deterrence and de-escalation”.

A Russian foreign ministry official was quoted as saying the United States might be included for the first time in a group of countries working to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

RIA quoted the official, Oleg Krasnitsky, as saying there was no reason why the United States should not join the so-called Normandy grouping – comprising Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – that has tried but so far failed to end the war.

“A lot depends on the position of Washington in settling the Ukrainian conflict. In principle, if the U.S. is really ready to make a contribution, we’ve always been open to America exercising its influence on Kyiv,” he was quoted as saying.

The remarks appeared to indicate that Moscow was open to an offer by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week for Washington to facilitate talks on the fighting.

In eastern Ukraine, some residents were sceptical that the Biden-Putin call would make any difference.

“We have been living in war for many years. And it is terrible that we got used to it. I don’t know what will happen next. We’ll see,” said a 55-year-old teacher who gave his name as Vladislav.

Alexander Pipchenko, 52, said: “It was pointless. It’s been going on for eight years already. In my opinion, it will not bear any fruit.”

 

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams, Sergei Kirichenko and Margaryta Chornokondratenko; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Politics & Mardi Gras — together again – Daily Advertiser

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The campaign trail that leads to the Governor’s Mansion has many pitstops, including but not limited to the annual Washington Mardi Gras celebration. 

Candidates have long sported tights alongside other parading Krewe members and navigated the packed confines of the 65th Parish bar. They often bring their teams as well to help spread the word, whether that means hanging branded beads from hotel doorknobs or simply ensuring the right people — like donors — get the right tickets to the right events.

Next month, however, the tradition will be slightly altered. With new COVID-19 rules being enforced by the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians and families and businesses back home still rebuilding after two years of hurricanes, some of the potential candidates for governor are either skipping the expensive shindig or adjusting their plans.

The decision-making process of each of the potential candidates offers us an early preview of who these politicos are, how they think and, most importantly, what their campaigns might look like. No one has officially announced for the big 2023 contest, but that will change sooner rather than later.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has yet to meet a vaccine rule he likes, has no plans to attend Washington Mardi Gras right now. That’s going to be an adjustment for some diehard conservatives who look forward to attending Landry’s annual fundraisers at the Trump Hotel.

Landry’s decision mirrors that of Congressman Clay Higgins, who said he opposes the “oppressive mandates” and new vaccine and testing protocols approved by the Mystick Krewe. Higgins, who is not expected to be a candidate for governor, said the event’s leadership “has apparently determined that free Americans are unable to be trusted with their own medical decisions.”

Over the years, newspapers have been critical of Washington Mardi Gras, since the event jams special interests, lavish spending and elected officials underneath one roof for what now seems like an entire week, rather than a weekend. In other words, some good government folks question the ethics involved in such a swanky party. Higgins’ decision to boycott, though, had The Advocate’s editorial team singing another tune. In an “Our Views” editorial, the paper suggested Higgins’ snub was ”unhinged from reality” and “we dare to say that the party will be a lot more fun without him.”

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser is also skipping Washington Mardi Gras next month. “I gave up my box and decided not to attend after Hurricane Ida,” said Nungesser. “I can’t go up there for that while we’re still trying to rebuild across the coast. I’m working with groups that are still serving meals right now.”

Nungesser added, “My job is to promote Louisiana and to get people to come here, and everyone at Washington Mardi Gras is already from here. Now, I did go to New York last week for our float in the Thanksgiving parade to promote Louisiana. That was different. That was work.”

State Sen. Rick Ward of Maringouin and state Rep. Richard Nelson of Mandeville, who are also considering a run in 2023, said in interviews they plan to be in Washington for the January event, but will probably skip the posh events organized by the Krewe. They both described it as a personal choice, not a political one. 

Then there’s Treasurer John Schroder, whose own passion for Mardi Gras is rivaled only by the likes of Krewe legends like late U.S. Sen. Russel Long. He’s a longtime member of Endymion and set a goal for himself — even before elected office — to eventually ride with every parading krewe in Louisiana. So it comes as no surprise that Schroder is planning to attend. “For now,” he added.

He’s not the only one. According to Senior Krewe Lieutenant Tyron Picard, tickets for the various functions and rooms at the Washington Hilton are sold out. The annual gathering kicks off Jan. 27 at the Washington Hilton.

[Full disclosure: If you’re planning to attend, I will see you there.]

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‘Good politics, not too great epidemiology’: Ottawa’s new COVID-19 travel rules are a mess, experts say – Toronto Star

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OTTAWA—As COVID-19 cases tick upward around the globe and evidence mounts of the Omicron variant’s rapid spread, frustration is rising over the federal government’s attempts to keep the virus outside Canada’s borders.

Since Ottawa imposed its most recent travel ban — along with new testing and quarantine rules — confusion has plagued passengers in airports at home and abroad.

Travellers stuck overseas and those about to depart have descended on Facebook groups, begging for clarity over which rules they’re required to follow, amid questions about why tough new restrictions have been imposed on some countries but not others.

On Twitter, airlines have repeatedly deferred to the federal government when faced with flustered customers looking for help.

The federal government, in turn, keeps pointing to its website, which contains incomplete information.

Even cabinet ministers couldn’t seem to nail down their message: on Monday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Canada was trying to “buy” itself more time to learn about Omicron, while Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told CBC Radio the following morning that the country was working quickly on its approach.

The scramble has an echo of the early days of the pandemic — something experts say could have worrisome consequences nearly two years into the crisis.

“We’re at this point where people are already fed up and fatigued. Even some of the basic measures that we’ve asked for people to do — like masking in indoor settings, trying to reduce social contacts — it’s very hard to keep that up at this point,” said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director for infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network.

“If you lose people’s attention because one issue becomes really confusing, and the communications aren’t clear … we lose those same people for other things that are important to communicate during the emergence of a new variant.”

Much of the confusion began last week, when Ottawa banned foreign nationals who had recently travelled through 10 African countries from entering Canada.

The decision to bar some travellers but not others makes little sense given the rapid nature of Omicron’s spread, said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a former project manager with the World Health Organization.

“Border closures are also great politics, because it puts the emphasis that this threat is from outside of the country and puts the blame on others, as opposed to putting blame on a country’s public health response to the challenge,” Hoffman told the Star.

His assessment of the strategy? “Good politics, not too great epidemiology.”

Canadians trying to leave those 10 countries were suddenly required to have a negative result from a molecular test for COVID-19 — and to have the test done in a third country — before they arrived back at home.

“That doesn’t seem to be a reasonable policy. Why can’t they have a PCR test where they’re at?” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“If they’re coming here and if they’re coming from a country with a lot of Omicron, then they could be tested here.”

(Travellers departing from South Africa got a slight reprieve on Saturday, with a temporary exemption that allows them to get tested there instead of in a third country. Health Canada told the Star that the exemption will be extended or revoked based on domestic and international epidemiology.)

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Alghabra rationalized the move as creating a “cushion” between travellers’ departures and their arrivals in Canada, to ensure a more accurate test result.

But even for travellers entering Canada from countries that aren’t on the banned list (aside from the United States), the rules can still be nebulous.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s arrival plans for vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers — which include an arrival test, differing periods of quarantine, and followup tests — are not yet fully operational.

“The government is steadily increasing the number of fully vaccinated travellers being tested to reach fully 100 per cent operational capacity in the coming weeks,” Health Canada noted in an emailed statement.

Travellers are still not fully clear on where they obtain tests, how many must be completed and how long they are meant to quarantine, which all depends on where they’re coming from and their vaccination status.

What’s more, the government of Canada’s travel webpage notes that anyone who can show proof of a positive result from a COVID-19 test conducted between 14 and 180 days prior to departure is exempt from any arrival testing. But Health Canada contradicted that in its statement to the Star, saying that travellers arriving from the banned countries must undergo the testing — even if they’ve previously tested positive.

“We’re seeing some early evidence that out of South Africa that reinfections can occur more frequently with Omicron — two to three times more frequently than we’ve seen with other variants,” Hota said.

“Just because you’ve had a prior infection doesn’t mean that you are completely immune to an Omicron infection,” she said, adding that at the very least, those passengers should be asked to isolate given that testing recovered people can sometimes yield unreliable results.

Banerji says governments have been dealt a tricky task in coming up with new rules — and having to implement them.

“I think it’s challenging for any government to make policies with so much uncertainty and a lot of unknowns. I would say that it’s really important … to stick to the evidence and the science rather than an emotional response.”

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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