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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

doug saunders

Germany and Canada are the West’s last safe harbours Add to ...

“It looks like it is now just Germany and Canada holding down the Western world,” an elected politician from one of Germany’s prosperous western states told me over dinner this week. I started to laugh, but he put up his hand – he was being serious. He launched into a depressing tour of the countries once known as the Group of Eight, most of them sliding into chaos or extremism or long-term political paralysis.

At the head of the table, the United States is weeks away from falling off the political map, as far as its trade and military partners are concerned: Donald Trump’s administration will be, at best, unstable and untrustworthy; at worst, it will be a voice of toxic extremism to be shunned and avoided. Britain fell off in June, its Brexit referendum and harsh-edged new government limiting its relations with the world to a negotiated retreat, its future too uncertain for anyone to strike up commitments.

France is in deep crisis in advance of an election next year that could have frightening results: a victory by the race-hatred candidate Marine Le Pen or a lunge far rightward by conservatives to stave her off. Italy appears an oasis of sanity under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, but his reforms are under attack and his government could be on the edge of collapse. Poland and Hungary have extreme, xenophobic governments that are withdrawing from international co-operation. Scandinavian countries are wrestling with coalition governments that include extremists.

And Russia, which has been lost for a long time, seems poised to establish a bloc of states with illiberal, authoritarian governments aimed against the liberal democracies – a bloc that could now come to include the United States. Scanning the horizon from Berlin in search of safe partnerships, there’s Canada. And, as Germans kept telling me this week, not much else.

We could not have imagined, a year ago, that we’d experience the dark irony of Germany becoming the safe harbour against extremism in the West and Canada its last shoulder to lean on. Not that Germany is free from threats: Its angry, anti-immigrant movement, the AfD, currently polls strongly in many regions (especially those, as is typical of such movements, that don’t have many immigrants) – and while I’ve long felt confident Germans would know their history well enough to avoid the darkest politics, I would have said the same about the Americans two weeks ago.

And it’s not because Canada did anything particularly great or noble: It was what we didn’t do, or haven’t done yet. Oh, and because we did manage to sign a humongous free-trade deal with the 28-country bloc just before the lights went out. That mattered: It’s now the lifeline Germans and their neighbours hope to use to pull the United States and Britain out.

“Outside Europe, Canada is our closest ally,” Michael Roth, Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, told me recently when we spoke about the two countries' tight cooperation on Syrian refugee settlement. Mr. Roth was also involved in the negotiations of the Canada-EU trade agreement.

Other German officials made it clear to me that they intervened and worked overtime to bend the elbow of recalcitrant Wallonia and get the trade agreement signed because they wanted to send an unambiguous message to Britain: That this is the only way to get yourself a trade relationship with Europe from the outside, by plowing through eight years of hard negotiation with 40 national and subnational governments. And to leave the Brexiters with the sense that, should their unlikely ambition be realized and they stand outside the EU, a distant former colony will have better ties to the continent than they could ever get.

“We have to say to the people of Europe, and especially to the British: This is a long and bumpy road,” Mr. Roth said, adding: “But nobody wants to punish the British.”

Nobody talks about the politics of punishment. But we’re about to enter a period in which a lot of the world’s mightiest countries are not going to be at the table. We’re there, left sitting amid the shattered crockery with someone much bigger. And we’re going to be held up, by the scruff of the neck, until the guys lying on the floor take notice.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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