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Now it’s Biden, not Trump, giving Trudeau grief

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The political bromance that was supposed to blossom between Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden has so far been a bust.

When Americans turfed Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election and sent Biden to the White House, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief across Canada. A dark, dangerous cloud that had hovered over this country for four years had been blown away. With two progressive, seemingly compatible leaders at the helm of the North American neighbours a new era of amiable bilateral relations seemed guaranteed.

But that hasn’t come to pass. And so Prime Minister Trudeau will have his work cut out for him when he heads to Washington for Thursday’s summit with President Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Despite all his friendly smiles, Biden has yet to prove he’s a real friend to this country. Relations are strained and he’s making them worse. There’s an infrastructure bill packed with Buy American provisions that could bar Canadian businesses from bidding on billions of dollars worth of projects in the U.S. Biden loves it.

Another bill would offer huge incentives for American consumers to purchase made-in-the-U.S. electric vehicles instead of buying Canadian-manufactured models. Biden is all for it. If Congress passes the bill, car makers would obviously be more inclined to invest in American electric vehicle plants than Canadian ones. Then what will happen to all those dreams of a bright new Canadian electric-vehicle sector?

No wonder Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, says the proposed incentives are “a bigger threat than anything pointed at us by Donald Trump” — including all the tariffs he imposed and the disruptive free-trade battle he engineered.

Meanwhile, the State of Michigan is still trying to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline which transports vital supplies of Western Canadian petroleum to Ontario and Quebec. If this threat to Canada has caught Biden’s eye, he’s done nothing about it. And if the list of bilateral sore-points isn’t long enough already, the American government moved this spring to double tariffs on Canadian lumber.

Clearly American protectionism has again reared its ugly head. And this despite the years of struggles during the Trump era to reach the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement which, by the way, does not permit those American electric-vehicle incentives.

It should be a given that Trudeau will raise these issues with Biden this week. But the president will be more preoccupied with pressures coming from within his own deeply divided country. After just 10 months in office, his approval ratings have plummeted. The control his Democrats have over Congress is precarious and could be lost after next year’s mid-term elections. And those Buy American incentives are widely popular south of the border with progressive Democrats, unions, consumers and, when it comes to electric vehicles, environmentalists.

Trudeau will be swimming upstream against powerful currents to alter these trends. He does, however, have leverage. With an increasingly assertive China responsible for Biden’s biggest international headache, Trudeau should remind him Canada and Mexico can help build a “Fortress North America” as an economic and political counterweight to that rising superpower. With Canadian and Mexican co-operation, Biden could also have a better chance of successfully fighting climate change, which would thrill much of his voter base.

Beyond these measures, Trudeau should adopt a strategy that worked with Trump: start sending his federal cabinet ministers and Canadian business leaders to meet with and lobby their American counterparts.

Considering all the differences between them, it may be too much to hope for another “Three Amigos Summit” this week. We’d settle for a co-operative, congenial neighbourly get-together.