Former prime minister Brian Mulroney addressed the Canada-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce's 94th annual meeting in the British House of Lords yesterday. While acknowledging that next month's referendum on whether to remain in the European Union is a decision for the British electorate alone, he emphasized that the consequences go beyond the United Kingdom, and cited historical, security and economic issues to anchor his view that Britain should remain.
Recently, President [Barack] Obama came to London and said how important he thought it was for the UK to remain securely within the leadership of Europe. For his interest, he was told by prominent members of the Leave Committee to mind his own business.
One year ago, I had the distinct privilege of paying tribute to Sir Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace on the 50th anniversary of his death. I cited the intimate links between Churchill and Canada – what he affectionately called "The Great Dominion" – as well as our major role against the Nazi scourge in the Second World War.
Britain did not stand alone. On Sept. 10, 1939, one week following Britain – and two years before America – Canada declared war on Germany. That was my country's first, independent declaration of war and the beginning of the largest combined, national effort in our history.
Our contribution and our sacrifice was substantial. From a population of 11 million, over one million Canadians – mostly volunteers – served in uniform. Canada fielded the fourth largest air force and the fifth largest naval fleet in the world. We suffered some 100,000 casualties, half of whom were killed in action.
The compellingly unforgettable radio voice of Winston Churchill – tinged with courage and sacrifice and heroism – rang out across the 5,000 windswept miles of a young but pulsating Canada, and became a clarion call to all to join the battle, and they did so in record numbers.
These were the farm boys from the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, coal miners from the pits in Alberta and Nova Scotia, factory and paper-mill workers from Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec; doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses and tradesmen from all parts of Canada – men and women, most of whom had seldom ventured beyond their local community, let alone across a vast ocean. They went off to war, having heard from Churchill the noblest call of all – freedom.
Canada's 'calling card to comment'
Canadian service men and women matured quickly under fire. Their valour and their sacrifices paid dividends in the Battle of Britain, the Atlantic convoys, the invasion of Italy, the D-Day landings in Normandy and in the liberation of France, Belgium and Holland.
Canada's economic generosity throughout the war and well into the peace was unprecedented. With a population only one-twelfth that of the U.S., Canada's financial gifts were one-quarter of the total Lend Lease aid from the U.S. That means they were more than three times greater on a per capita basis. The proportion of defence expenditures given away in terms of free supplies was higher from Canada than from any other country in the world.
Canada was proud to contribute to this, the noblest cause of all. This is Canada's calling card today, one that – I hope you will agree – allows us to comment on a major referendum that will shape the future of our beloved mother country and that of our friends and allies in Europe.
My experience negotiating NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] – presently the largest and most prosperous free-trade area in the world – and its predecessor, the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. – which [then treasury secretary] James Baker III described in his memoir as one of the two most important economic achievements of the Reagan Administration – adds further credibility to our calling card. As Baker acknowledged, the FTA was a "near-run thing." You can never take trade negotiations for granted.
The results, however, exceeded even the estimates of the most ardent advocates. Since implementation of the FTA in 1989, Canada-U.S. trade has more than tripled to $750-billion a year, constituting the largest trade between any two nations in the history of the world. In the same period, our GDP [gross domestic product] has more than doubled to $1.8-trillion and the Canadian economy has created 4.6 million new jobs. Many see the trade agreements as the major catalyst for that growth. But the best compliment of all is the fact that most who had been opposed ultimately became champions of the agreement.
Canada's experience with referenda – the ultimate option in any democracy – is similarly vivid and relevant.
In 1995, Canada came within 50,000 votes – four-tenths of 1 per cent – of fracturing as a country over a referendum on which the question was convoluted but the intent was unambiguous. The exercise was nerve-wracking, suggesting to many outsiders that, at times, Canada can be a "solution looking for a problem"! Common sense prevailed, and we remain solidly united today as we contemplate celebrating our 150th anniversary one year from now. We have persistently and successfully struck the right balance between the federal and provincial levels of government . Never perfect, to be sure, but eminently workable and reinvigorated.
The question for Britain is clear enough but the consequences are much less certain. The mood is restless and influenced by many recent events. The positions on both sides of your debate reveal tensions between emotion and reason – but ultimately the choice is binary. No room for nuance, and therein lies the real dilemma.
The political consensus and the will needed to reinforce the dream of a united Europe is being buffeted along emotional and nationalistic lines.
But one should never forget the towering achievements of a united Europe over the last 50 years, compared with the tragedy, horror and turbulence of the previous half-century. The European Union has become a monument to peace, civility and achievement, unique in the thousand-year history of Europe.
Let us not forget either that this massive accomplishment was made possible in large measure by strong, thoughtful and effective British leadership at a crucial time in the evolution of the EU.
In simple English, this is what the referendum is all about: ongoing privileged membership in a powerful, influential and prosperous bloc or the uncertainty that comes from an EU that could eventually collapse or be significantly weakened by the profound impact of a UK departure.
The massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere is disrupting the openness of Europe's internal borders and injecting fiscal burdens to the already beleaguered economies of many member states. That and the threat of more terrorist attacks is putting a heavy strain on the social fabric of Europe.
And when governments and their institutions are met by unforeseen pressures, radical or extremist political prescriptions capture attention.
Much of what we are witnessing these days in the U.S. presidential campaign reflects similar emotions of fear and anger, stimulated in large part by the sense that government is dysfunctional or detached from public concerns. Or that the global system of trade and investment is tilted against American interests.
As I know from my own experience, those passions are easily aroused. I often think of [British historian and statesman] Lord MacAulay's observation long ago: "Free trade, one of the greatest blessings a government can confer on its people is, in almost every country, unpopular."
Despite its noble intent, the regulatory framework established in Brussels may have a logical premise but can seem inflexible and arbitrary in the face of local traditions or custom. I can, for instance, readily understand the frustration of a small family business in rural England that has been making bread boards from trees on its land for more than 300 years only to be notified suddenly that their product is unsanitary.
Decisions like that taken in Brussels can put serious stress on the most basic tenet of democracy – accountability – and undermine the credibility of elected representatives.
When governments seem too distant or disassociated from the daily concerns and needs of the people they serve, they inevitably lose public favour. Justice Secretary Michael Gove echoed this concern, saying: "The laws we must all obey and the taxes we pay should be decided by the people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change."
He added that "the growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every way." Those who favour leaving are confident that Britain would have a better future operating more on its own, but I doubt anyone can make that categorical judgment in advance. There are too many unknowns.
When it comes to trade and investment, you know what you have today in terms of market access as a member of the EU, but you do not really know what terms you would be able to negotiate, should you leave, nor do you know how long it would take. Your Chancellor of the Exchequer has declared that it would be "complete fantasy" to suggest a special deal with the EU that would give Britain full access to the EU single market with none of the associated costs and responsibilities.
President Obama expressed similar caution about the prospects of any side deal with the U.S.
A "Leave" vote would obviously open the door to a protracted negotiation and a prolonged period of adjustment, triggering a degree of uncertainty that could make investors nervous.
While trying to remain neutral on the question, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, acknowledged to Parliament that the referendum is "the biggest domestic risk to financial stability because, in part, of … uncertainty." He added more pointedly that it would "without question" hit UK jobs and growth. Carney suggested that some financial firms were making contingency plans to relocate, should Britain opt to leave the EU, adding that the Bank of England also has its own contingency plans to avoid a Brexit financial crisis. Most recently, Carney cautioned that the risks of leaving "could possibly include a technical recession."
The OECD has offered a similarly, somber analysis.
'Keep Britain at the high table'
I am mindful of the frustration and pessimism fuelling the Leave contingent in the debate but, for me personally, the counter arguments are more compelling. Clearly, a vote to remain in the EU would keep Britain at the high table in Brussels and in a position to influence, if not drive reform at a crucial time.
In that sense, I noted the wise advice given your Parliament a few months ago by Sir Nicholas Soames. Reaching back into history, he reminded his colleagues of his grandfather Winston Churchill's admonition at the time Britain was debating the first stage of European integration – the Schuman Plan.
"We fought alone against tyranny for a whole year, not purely from national motives," said Churchill. "It is true that our lives depended on our doing so, but we fought the better because we felt with conviction that it was not only our own cause, but a world cause for which the Union Jack kept flying in 1940 and 1941."
I have little doubt what Churchill's advice would be today.
It is, of course, a vote for the British electorate alone, but the stakes are high, and not just for Britain.
Particularly in a year in which Britain and Canada together celebrate the 90th birthday of Her Majesty and her spectacular reign as our shared Head of State, I am confident that the customary resilience and pragmatism and courage of British voters will rise to the challenge and continue this splendid nation on a course toward greater leadership, achievement and prosperity for all.