Being in Canada during the rather exciting past year led to a number of conversations with people which left a sense of deja vu. This is not new; in 2014, whenever Canadians found I was born in Scotland two things invariably crept into our conversation: 1. Their Scottish Grandmother, who came from a tiny little village somewhere in Scotland and had I ever been there? and 2. What do I think of the SNP and the Independence Referendum?
But last year it was different. Perhaps it is because I sound more English than Scots, but the one thing that nearly everybody wanted to know about was the EU Referendum. And as the Brexiteers’ ‘People’s Army’ (as it was known by some) crept closer to the crucial 50.1% mark, the question changed. No longer was it “What is the referendum about?” or even “Why are you having a referendum”, but rather “Why are so many Britons voting for Brexit?”
This I rather liked. When one is as politically-minded as I am, the more political discussions one has per day the better. The referendum was a very interesting topic and so I enjoyed explaining the Leave position. Alas, it was harder to explain to the Canadians than for the Americans. For those south of the border, I found quite often all one had to say was something quite similar to a proof in Euclidean Geometry: “The EU Parliament has no legislative powers; the EU supersedes all national laws; the EU Taxes; therefore many are voting to leave because Britons generally dislike Taxation Without Representation.”
But for Canadians it was often harder to understand the Brexit position. Many saw the EU through the lens of their own very successful Federation of Anglophone and Francophone Provinces. To them Brexit was a confusing act by some short-sighted Britons who harkened back to the days of the empire. But then something changed. Walloonia, one of the two Belgian Regions, blocked the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA). CETA was a major trade agreement between the EU and Canada aimed at eliminating 98% of all tariffs and while it had been in negotiations since 2009, the process had begun in 2004. Strangely enough, this act of self-determination by Wallonia turned Canadian public feeling. Perhaps the EU was, after all, as bureaucratic and overbearing as many Britons complained. And then the vote became to be viewed as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience to the world at large.
What I found interesting was that people began to notice that Brexit offered the chance for something that had already made a blip on the national radar – Commonwealth Free Movement. This is the idea that there should be free movement of people between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK – the ‘CANZUK’ nations, and is being pushed by the Commonwealth Free Movement Organisation. In 2015, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had an article on it, which included a small e-poll. More noteworthy was when the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) & YouGov conducted a poll asking if Canadians supported free movement between Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand: The results were quite striking; 75% of Canadians supported it, with only 15% opposing the idea.
For many I spoke to, Free Movement meant that a deal between a Post-Brexit Britain now no longer was merely bailing out an elderly Britain, but a potentially exciting two-sided deal that could offer great benefits and opportunities to Canadians. However, a minority maintained that it regrettably could not be done, that the opportunity and time had passed forever into history. Most who felt that way were unsure precisely why and how the opportunity had passed, and why it could not be restored if all parties so wished. It was generally something along the lines of “the government won’t accept it, as nice as it would be.”
To me, the underlying feeling is that a trade agreement like CETA isn’t anything to get excited about, but if CANZUK Free Movement was included it very much would be. Such a trade agreement would offer something for the majority of Canadians to rally behind and get engaged with. It seems that a number of Canadians feel that if the UK wants free trade, then Canada should push for free movement.
I have found that whenever I look for what is happening in British (and often even global) politics, it is often something to do with Brexit, especially what sort of exit deal the Government is aiming for. It would seem to revolve around four very remarkable ladies: Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine LePen. Others look wider and feel that there are three men – Jean-Claude Juncker, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump – who somehow hold the other keys for Britain’s future outside of the EU. While these seven may indeed be important, sometimes it would seem parts of the press and our host of armchair statesmen-negotiators (of whom I must acknowledge being one) forget the world is larger than the EU, the USA and China.
I am therefore pleased to announce it seems that Canada, like the USA, China, India, Australia, Germany, New Zealand and Japan, are all interested in treaties or trade deals of some kind with the UK.
To conclude an article about Brexit that has not used the words “soft”, “hard”, or “grey”, the future in 2017 may well bring closer Canada-UK ties. As many others have noted PM May is in the position to direct the course of the UK for at least a generation. Over on this side of ‘the pond’ it seems Canadians are happy that Canada is en-route, and speaking for myself, I am too.