After all these years, after all that history, everything will be reversed. The United Kingdom will look to Canada, its former colony, for validation after Britain leaves the European Union.
Assuming the chaotic mess at Westminster somehow resolves itself, and Brexit actually occurs next March 29, the first free-trade agreement the British sign outside the EU could be with Canada, reversing the relationship between the mother country and her former dominion.
Of course, we don’t know whether the tentative agreement that Theresa May’s Conservative government struck with EU negotiators will survive. We don’t know whether the government itself will survive, whether there will be an election or another referendum, or some combination of the above. This is a situation in which people talk with a straight face about “a backstop to the backstop.”
But one way or another, Brexit is more likely to happen than not happen. And if it happens, Britain will be desperate to sign as many trade agreements as possible, as quickly as possible, to justify the divorce. The first of those agreements could be with Canada.
Ms. May and Justin Trudeau signalled as much last week when, according to the Canadian summary of their conversation, “Prime Minister Trudeau reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring a seamless transition of Canada-United Kingdom bilateral relations, particularly in terms of free trade, following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.”
Behind the scenes, a British government official speaking on background said that technical discussions are proceeding smoothly and that formal negotiations would follow immediately after Brexit. Similar discussions are under way with other trading partners, but a trade agreement with Canada is expected to be either the first or one of the first to be announced.
There’s a good reason for a quick deal, beyond the fact that it makes sense for the world’s fifth largest economy (theirs) to have a trade agreement with the 10th (ours). The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union passed its first anniversary in September. A Canada-U.K. agreement would require no more than tweaking a few CETA clauses.
A quick deal with Canada would demonstrate that Britain is willing and able to re-establish its trading relationships outside the EU with a minimum of disruption. But students of history would shake their heads in wonder.
Much of Canada’s early history was bound up in trade with Great Britain. As a colony, we were initially protected within the Imperial system. When Britain embraced free trade in the mid 1800s, Canadian businesses were forced to adapt.
They adapted by shifting their focus to the United States. From Confederation until the end of the Second World War, Liberal and Conservative governments grappled with the issue of balancing U.K. and U.S. trade, as the old empire waned and the new one rose.
Now, Britain is about to reintroduce itself onto the world stage as an independently trading nation. Canada is among the freest trading countries on earth, having forged agreements with the United States and Mexico (NAFTA), the European Union (CETA) and the 11 other nations of the new Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). There has also been incremental progress at increasing trade with China, though a comprehensive agreement isn’t in the cards any time soon.
And this week, Mr. Trudeau pitched a new trade agreement with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (An aside: The better route would be for those members of ASEAN that are not part of the TPP to join it.)
So it makes perfect sense for Canada to welcome the new kid on the block by being the first country to sign a free-trade agreement with Britain.
But after everything that has happened in the past, after all the years struggling to get out from under the mother country’s protective embrace, to find a role for ourselves in the world, to be recognized as something more than a dependency of Britain or a dependency of the United States, it would be richly ironic to help reintroduce the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the world.
Everything these days is upside down.