The original plan for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was to hold the “Three Amigos” Summit in Ottawa this June 29 in a bid to kick-start a warmer relationship among the three countries after years of “frosty” partnership between Canada’s former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his counterparts in the U.S. and Mexico. The thought was that it would follow from the “bromance” meeting between Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last March.
Along with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, the meeting sent a strong reaffirmation of the commitment to NAFTA and possible greater economic integration, greater cooperation on common security matters and significant initiatives on climate change. Canada also announced its plan to remove irritants with Mexico such as visa restrictions and announce efforts to deal in a cooperative manner with issues affecting indigenous people. In short, the three leaders were trying to send a message that North American cooperation is alive and well. For Obama’s last get-together with his North American partners, it sent all the right signals.
It was a clear contrast to events swirling in Europe following the Brexit referendum victory. Even when it wasn’t mentioned, the Brexit decision to leave the European Union on June 23 overshadowed much of the hoped-for media hype of the Three Amigos Summit.
If anything, the Brexit vote raises serious economic concerns for this side of the Atlantic that cannot be swept away by the understandable appeal for calm by some EU leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, or a conciliatory conference communiqué by the North American leaders. It is important to note that Canada is currently in the final stages of a free trade agreement with the European Union that includes Britain. It remains to be seen how Brexit will affect those negotiations now.
To better comprehend the stakes, let us examine the current scene in Britain and consequently in Europe: the British pound is currently facing a devaluation unseen in 30 years; Britain’s credit rating has been downgraded by Moody, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch (all within less than a week); markets such as the Dow Jones are down and volatile; Prime Minister Cameron has announced his resignation; the British governing class is divided and appears in disarray as opposition Labour MPs quit their own party’s shadow cabinet and are asking for the resignation of Leader Jeremy Corbyn; a citizen petition with over three million signatures is asking for a second referendum, or possibly a general election, to undo the referendum result; key players in the European Union are already placing pressure on Britain to begin the process of withdrawal; renewed calls for a referendum on Scottish independence; potentially important repercussions in Northern Ireland; intergenerational division; and there is serious talk that Britain will soon face a recession. All of this will not fade away in a few days.
Add in the U.S. presidential campaign on the eve of two national party conventions (Democrat and Republican) confirming their presumptive nominees with each candidate differing on the Brexit implications and we have material for quite a few news cycles!
In addition to the mud-slinging that already promises to make this election one of the ugliest and most divisive in U.S. history, issues dealing with free trade (“Amexit” is a term beginning to surface as Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump‘s version of Brexit and his opting out of NAFTA), national security and immigration reform will likely show even greater polarization between the two challengers—and we must recall all these issues dominated the Brexit debate. Also similar to the United Kingdom, divisions within the two political parties are in the backdrop (Bernie Sanders–Clinton, Republican establishment—Trump), as there is a rising tide of protectionism in both parties that influenced the primary season.
In Canada, there has been some talk that the Quebec separatist movement will be encouraged by the Brexit result. The pro-independence party, Parti Quebecois, is currently in the midst of a leadership race and the events in Britain have brought up issues related to referenda, such as what constitutes a legitimate majority for leaving Canada. Competing candidates have also made some statements about the viability of the British process of convening a referendum to resolve as complicated an issue as breaking out of the European Union. Granted, the talk is cautious, as the support for Quebec independence in a recent poll was at a low of 33 percent and the situation in Britain is far from appearing stable.
However, between the potential unravelling of the EU and the possible election of a Donald Trump in the U.S., it can only mean that “business as usual” politics may soon be a thing of the past.
Before overly dwelling on pessimistic scenarios this side of the pond, it may be worthwhile to draw some lessons from the British experience. Referenda are fundamentally a consultative exercise with no legal binding power. We in Canada have had three such exercises since 1980 in Quebec (full disclosure: I was involved in each referendum in a strategic capacity for the “stay in Canada” side). That said, conducting a referendum is serious business because there are moral issues involved–the people are engaged in a process and are compelled to vote. Once the exercise is over, voters in a democracy have spoken. This is why EU leaders are correct in asking for British clarity and resolve in the light of the Brexit decision. You have chosen to leave, so act!
Prime Minister Cameron may have acted to quell dissent in his party and the increasing rise of a marginal party such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but he had the legitimacy to decide to conduct this referendum. We can argue (I certainly do) about the wisdom of his timing, or the nature of his campaign, but he had a mandate to hold the vote.
Since calling for the vote, the persistent migrant crisis on the European continent and the UKIP emphasis on unwelcome immigration should have given Cameron some reason to pause and evaluate the context. Such an evaluation is not anathema in a democracy, especially for a recently elected leader.
Finally, Cameron posed the question in a way that led him to fight for the negative side. An odd position, to say the least. Normally, in a referendum you ask the question so as to require a positive response, and nothing would have prevented an option for a second referendum if the results were unsatisfactory or to ratify an alternative process. It now seems that there was no contingency plan for Brexit.
At the time of this writing, the majority of British MPs in the House of Commons campaigned for the “Remain” side. Former London Mayor and “Leave” leader, Boris Johnson, still remains in the minority in the ruling Conservative caucus. Fellow Leave leader, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, is the only MP elected to the European Parliament from his party and there is only one representative from the UKIP in the House of Commons. Isn’t it strange that no one is currently in a position of authority to exercise the will of the people or to make good on the promises of the Leave campaign? In the Quebec referenda of 1980 and 1995 on Quebec independence, the Premier of Quebec was for the “yes” and the opposition leader was for the “no” side. In Britain, both Cameron and the primary opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn were on the Remain side. Both lost, thereby creating a real power vacuum!
We cannot discard the significance of the Brexit vote, and unless the British political class somehow acts to reverse it—such as calling a general election some time in the near future—the verdict must be accepted. This said, what more can we learn from this experience?
Before engaging in an exercise affecting the future of a nation, it is important for politicians to evaluate all of the possible consequences. Those in power must defend their values and convictions in a positive sense, level with their voters, and present a clear choice. It appears both the “Leave” side and the “Remain” side respectively and dramatically failed this test. And that in itself explains the current turmoil in their country, with no clear end in sight.