By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
MEXICO CITY - Mexico simply doesn't meet the federal government's requirements for visa free travel to Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday.
Harper addressed the thorny issue that has threatened to overshadow his trip here. But both he and his host, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, appeared to take steps — in public, at least — to play down any tension.
The two leaders presided over the signing of an agreement to expand air travel between the two countries and renewed their vows to foster mutual economic growth.
The two countries also renewed their long-standing "joint action plan" to foster economic growth, security, immigration and trade.
Standing next to Harper in his country's resplendent National Palace, Pena Nieto did not appear to display any outward dissatisfaction over the visa irritant, saying his country has "a very open mind" and wants to work with Canada to eventually lift it.
However, the Mexican president cancelled a plan to answer questions after the joint statement, leaving Harper to address the travelling Canadian media by himself.
Canada has "clear criteria" for why it requires some countries to have a visa based on "national and public security and illegal migration," and Mexico currently meets those criteria, he said.
"Under the current circumstances we should have a visa with Mexico," Harper said.
"We remain always ready to discuss those criteria, what Mexico could do to address some of those issues and also what possibilities exist between us to facilitate legitimate travel."
Harper's meeting with Pena Nieto was the warm-up for Wednesday's Three Amigos summit, when they will be joined by U.S. President Barack Obama in Toluca, a town about an hour outside the capital, where Pena Nieto grew up.
Harper said he planned to raise the Keystone XL pipeline with Obama, in private, and that his message would be "very similar" to what he has been saying in public in recent years: that the pipeline, which would carry Alberta oilsands bitumen to the U.S., would be good for the economies of both countries.
"I'll raise the issue in private as I've done every time I've met him over the past couple of years," Harper said.
Earlier in the day, as he met with Mexican business leaders, Harper said Canada needs to do more to close its trade deficit with Mexico while attracting more investment from its southern neighbour.
While the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement has fostered commercial growth between the two countries, there are still wrinkles to iron out, he suggested.
"It's a very unbalanced relationship," Harper said.
"Trade flows have gone up enormously, but mostly on the Mexican side. Investment flows have gone up enormously, but almost entirely on the Canadian side. So we probably want to take a look at what we can do to grow some of those things more in a more balanced way."
In 2012, Canada imported $25.5 billion from Mexico while Canada exported about $5.4 billion to Mexico, the Prime Minister's Office said.
Mexico is hopeful the expanded air access agreement, meanwhile, proves a precursor to the Conservative government eventually lifting the visa requirement, which was imposed in 2009 to combat an increase of bogus asylum seekers.
The Mexican government has complained loudly and publicly about the visa, which it says is invasive, time-consuming and to blame for a major decline in Mexican visitors to Canada.
The powerful Canadian Council of Chief Executives has urged Harper to lift the visa, or at least simplify it with a less onerous on-line process that would be similar to the standard to which the United States subjects Mexican applicants.