Canada has emerged as a hot topic at the annual gathering of Britain’s Conservative Party, with members talking about “Super Canada”, “Canada plus, plus, plus” and even “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Canada.”
“Are you pleased that Canada is more talked about in the United Kingdom?” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP and ardent Brexit backer said with a smile when asked about the growing obsession with Canada at the four-day conference.
It’s not that British Tories have suddenly become enamored with moose, Mounties and maple syrup. What they’ve been debating are the merits of Canada’s trade agreement with the European Union and whether Britain could follow the same model when it leaves the EU in March. It’s a divisive topic that has led to heated arguments among party members and competing rallies to applaud or denounce what they call the Canada option.
The debate has intensified as Prime Minister Theresa May loses support among party members for her Brexit strategy, which essentially involves Britain remaining within the EU’s single market for trade in goods, but not services such as selling financial products. With Ms. May’s plan looking increasingly doomed (the EU has already indicated it is unacceptable), many party members are turning to the Canada-EU deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, which largely came into force last year and is considered the most far-reaching trade deal ever negotiated by the EU.
Brexit backers have embraced CETA as a sound alternative to Ms. May’s plan. They argue the Prime Minister’s strategy would keep Britain too closely tied to the EU. Instead, they argue Britain should leave the EU and negotiate an even better deal than CETA; or “Canada plus, plus, plus.” Mr. Rees-Mogg said Britain would have an easier time negotiating a trade deal with the EU than Canada, because the British and EU economies are already completely intertwined and there are no protected industries, such as Canada’s dairy and cultural sectors.
"The starting point for the U.K. is easier than Canada because as we have zero tariffs and zero quotas,” Mr. Rees-Mogg said in an interview with The Globe and Mail after a pro-Brexit rally on Sunday. “We’re not taking any protection away from any of our individual industries. So to open things up is fairly straightforward.” He added that the EU has already offered to negotiate a CETA-style agreement. During Sunday’s rally Mr. Rees-Mogg joked that the term “Canada plus, plus, plus,” wasn’t sufficient to describe how good the deal would be. “We want to be more positive, and I can’t be more positive than ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ which, as you all know is a word developed by a nanny, and nannies are jolly good things.”
Ms. May and other Tories have called the CETA option unworkable because it would create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and violate the 1998 Good Friday Accord which ended decades of sectarian violence. She has warned that if her plan is rejected, Britain could leave the EU without any deal, something business leaders have said could cause chaos.
The CETA model has also been rejected by Tories who want even closer economic ties to the EU than Ms. May. Mr. Rees-Mogg “is talking rubbish,” said Tory MP Anna Soubry, who believes Britain should remain in the EU’s single market, which provides for the free movement of goods, services and people. Ms. Soubry denounced the CETA option during a rally on Monday which called for a second referendum on Brexit. In an interview afterward, she noted that CETA took more than seven years to negotiate and doesn’t cover areas such as agriculture or financial services, which are critical to Britain’s economy. “If we do a Canada-style deal, we will actually be taking our country, which is currently absolutely gripped properly and firmly in the biggest free-trade area in the world, and we would actually erect barriers and erect tariffs. It’s the stuff of madness," she said. "There are a lot of people who simply either don’t know what they are talking about, or they do know and they are tricking and conning people with rhetoric and false promises.”
Nicolas Maclean, a party member who also belongs to the Canada-UK Council, said British farmers and financial institutions would be badly damaged under a CETA-type deal. And he said Mr. Rees-Mogg invokes Canada because it sounds good. “Because Britain likes Canada a lot and there’s this huge affinity between the Canadian and British people, [Mr. Rees-Mogg and others] are invoking the name Canada in a really misleading way,” he said.
Canadian trade expert Jason Langrish, who worked on CETA, said the Canada deal is a possible solution to Brexit, but it’s not the best option. He said Britain would be best served by a Norway-style arrangement, which would keep Britain within the EU’s single market but outside EU institutions. However, he acknowledged that Brexiteers and Ms. May have rejected that model because it would mean keeping free movement of people – one of the main reasons Britons voted for Brexit in the first place. “CETA is the second best option,” he said. “It is certainly better than a hard Brexit or these exotic [plans by Ms. May] which will go nowhere.”