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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

When Quebeckers voted twice in referendums about relations with Canada, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence suggested the province would be a loser.

Moreover, it was completely uncertain what kind of economic deal Quebec could strike with the rest of Canada, which would be the far larger country and in a surly mood after experiencing its own dismemberment.

Secessionists, of course, waved away the economic evidence, producing their own studies suggesting all would be fine for Quebec, if not better. And as for those negotiations, well, as then-Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard used to tell audiences in 1995: If we gather all our forces, the rest of Canada will have no choice but to cut a deal more or less on our terms.

Watching from afar the Brexit debate about Britain's potential departure from the European Union recalls those two referendums in which hard economics yielded to emotion and nearly broke up Canada.

The vast majority of serious economists and think tanks believe Britain would be an economic loser following withdrawal from the EU. As former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and current Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (a Canadian) have argued: There can be no guarantees about what kind of deal Britain might get with the EU. Why trade what works economically for the unknown?

Lord David Owen, once British foreign minister, passed through Canada recently. He spoke in Toronto and Ottawa about why Britain should leave the EU – at first glance an unexpected argument from someone who in the late 1970s left the Labour Party and formed with others the Social Democratic Party in part because Labour was against Britain being in the European Community (as it was then called). Today, Lord Owen has reversed field.

The EU, he argues, has moved down the track from an economic union to a political one, and that is not what Britain wants. Moreover, a closer political union would inexorably drive countries to think about sharing foreign and defence policies, which would weaken NATO.

While here, Lord Owen wanted to speak to those familiar with Canada's free-trade and investment deal with the EU. He told his dinner partners one night that Britain should ask the EU for the same deal it negotiated with Canada.

If only it were that easy. Britain's links with the EU are far deeper than with Canada. Britain's economy is far more dependent on the EU than Canada's. And it has taken the better part of five years for Canada and the EU to reach an agreement that must now be ratified. That ratification is assured in Canada and is likely but not certain in Europe.

If Britain were to ask the EU for a Canadian type of deal, the history of Canada's negotiations with the EU would suggest something drawn-out and complicated – against the backdrop of some Europeans feeling peeved at Britain's departure, an emotion that obviously did not colour negotiations with Canada.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, to take one study, looked at the consequences of Brexit. It concluded that a British departure "would have persistent adverse consequences on economic activity." Brexit would cost Britain three percentage points of GDP. It would lose some of Britain's share of foreign investment that arrives because the country is an EU member.

Another study, this one by Oxford Economics, reviewed nine different scenarios for Brexit. It concluded: "All scenarios were negative for Britain's GDP."

The EU gets blamed unfairly for problems that are not the Union's fault. The migrants that swamped Europe last summer, and are still trying to arrive, were not caused by the EU. The financial downdraft of 2008 that played havoc with European economies was created in the United States.

The sense of Englishness (Scots don't want to leave the EU, although many want to part ways with Britain) has been growing in recent years. The English "I'm all right Jack" attitude, combined with habitual distrust of garlic-eating Europeans among older Brits, and the drumbeat of sensational anti-European rubbish from the awful British tabloids, has made the Brexit referendum on June 23 a near-run thing.

A majority of those under 35 – those who represent the future – are comfortable with Britain being in Europe. A majority of those over 50 – those who represent the past – want to leave.

Economics says the young are right. But as Canada discovered in Quebec's referendums, economics has its limits in existential arguments.