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EU or Commonwealth: Where Does Canada Fit in Britain’s Plans?

EU or Commonwealth: Where Does Canada Fit in Britain’s Plans?
Scrabble tiles spell out the words "quit," "Brexit," and "EU." The upcoming vote in June on whether Britain stays in the EU is a puzzle of competing interests that includes Canada.

In 2009, George Monbiot wrote a much-trafficked op-ed in The Guardian on the Canadian tar sands political-industrial complex, blaming it for the “astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state.” The author blamed the government of Stephen Harper and its then anti-climate talks antics in particular: “The immediate threat to the global effort to sustain a peaceful and stable world comes not from Saudi Arabia or Iran or China. It comes from Canada. How could that be true?”

Today, with Justin Trudeau in power, Britain’s premier left-leaning newspaper is back to focusing on the more beautiful and cultured aspects of our country.

According to a recent column by Gaby Hinsliff, British progressives should look at Canada, rather than the usual suspects of Norway or Sweden, for ideas on how to pull that “elusive trick of remaining tolerant, relaxed and at ease with itself in challenging circumstances.” In case there was any doubt as to whose Canada this is, Hinsliff mentions Trudeau’s name nine times. Predictably, Canadian social media lit up over the piece, with The Toronto Star republishing it under the title “Trudeau’s Canada a model to emulate.” (The fact that the article mentions Donald Trump three times betrays an age-old cultural form of idealizing Canada by comparing it to its “problematic” southern neighbour.)

What of British conservatives? They are paying even closer attention to Canada these days. The main reason is the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union (EU). Launching his British exit — a.k.a. “Brexit” — campaign on March 11, London Mayor Boris Johnson  (a.k.a. BoJo) argued that the British people would benefit economically from leaving the EU so long as their government strikes a deal along the lines of the recently completed (but not ratified) Canada–EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Less than two weeks later, Johnson changed his mind, possibly because he concluded that a “Canadian deal” would never give Britain the sort of market access that it currently has with the other 27 members of the European bloc. For other Brexit campaigners, such as Conservative Party grandee Lord Lamont, Canada’s links to Brussels still look like the Goldilocks model: neither too close nor too distant, but just right.

Canadians may also be interested to know that some British conservatives view “O Canada,” always the English language version, as a chorus in the ballad of the “Anglosphere” — a Churchillian fantasy about a British family of nations centred on Washington, London, Ottawa, Canberra, and Wellington. In addition to BoJo, key Anglosphere enthusiasts include David Davis, Conservative MP and a leader of the party’s Eurosceptic wing; Owen Paterson, former MP and head of the UK 2020 think tank; Daniel Hannan, journalist, author, and member of the European Parliament for South East England; David Willetts, former MP, minister and member of the House of Lords; and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. Their collective view is that the EU is a historic cul-de-sac, hence the need to expand and deepen the scope of Anglospheric co-operation well beyond the existing “Five Eyes” networks in intelligence, military affairs, and diplomacy.

It should be noted that Canada’s own Conrad Black supported this vision long before everyone else. “If America were jubilant, Canada would be ecstatic,” he wrote in a 1998 report prepared for the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank founded by Margaret Thatcher, in which he made a passionate plea for Britain to ditch the EU and join North American integration processes instead. An echo of Black’s call was heard this weekend when Jason Kenney, MP for Calgary, former minister and future Conservative leadership candidate, tweeted that “A post #Brexit UK should go to the front of the queue for a free trade agreement with Canada, given the volume of trade & historic ties” and that “A post BREXIT Canada-UK FTA might get done before the Canada-EU agreement, given the interminable process for EU ratification of CETA!”

Even The Spectator, Britain’s venerable conservative newsmagazine that BoJo edited until 2005, now scoffs at such notions. At the same time, one can also argue that no political fantasy is anodyne and that far more madcap ideas have become reality. Not so long ago, the EU was a dream of a few, too.

Some Brexit enthusiasts are no doubt heartened by Royal Commonwealth Society surveys that show a great deal of support, especially among young adults, for the idea of granting Australians, Brits, Canadians, and New Zealanders reciprocal rights to live and work freely in each other’s countries. This research project — carried out in Canada by Nanos — originates in BoJo’s mayoral visit to Australia in 2013 during which he called for an Australia–United Kingdom mobility zone. The showy mayor not only inspired the aforementioned surveys, but also an online petition, launched in 2015, that advocates for the freedom of movement between and among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK. The petition, administered by the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation, has almost 115,000 supporters now and is slated to be submitted to the parliaments of the four countries for consideration.

Whatever their views on Britain’s relations with Brussels or, for that matter, Canada’s relations with Britain, Canadians should think twice before supporting such proposals. The reason is political. For most liberals, the right to move freely across borders is a fundamental right as well as fundamental to other rights, such as employment opportunities. In this case, however, the liberalism behind freedom of movement appears woefully retrograde. Indeed, what the proposed mobility zone would do is cut the Commonwealth — an important, if much neglected force in international affairs — into clubs that happen to index the mid-twentieth century racial division between the “old Commonwealth” (a.k.a. the “white Commonwealth”) and the “new Commonwealth” (a.k.a. the “Afro-Asian Commonwealth”).

Good luck building a “post-colonial” world, much less a decolonial one, with ideas like these.

This article was originally published on 26 April 2016 under the title “Canada and the Anglo World – where do we stand?” on OpenCanada.org.

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