Goodbye to All That?

What Britain's EU exit would mean for Canada

Illustrations by Hudson Christie
Illustrations by Hudson Christie

One of the (many) downsides of the non-stop Republican clown show south of the border is that distracted Canadians aren’t paying much attention to the important political drama playing out on the other side of the Atlantic. On June 23, British voters will cast ballots on the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” If a majority of voters reject the EU, the resulting “Brexit” could not only devastate the British economy, but also lead to further EU disintegration and a rollback of global free trade more generally.

As German troops blitzkrieged through France in the dark days of 1940, the British War Cabinet proposed an agreement by which “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial, and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.” Ultimately, the French negotiated a separate peace with the Germans, and the Franco-British Union was stillborn. Thankfully, though, Winston Churchill’s hope for a united Europe survived the war.

What began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community eventually became the six-member European Economic Community and later the European Union—now with twenty-eight member states, and a common currency, labour market, Parliament, and supranational judiciary. Britain voted by referendum to stay in the Economic Community in 1975, despite strong opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Those same constituencies have helped prevent Britain from adopting the euro, too. And now they are on the cusp of pushing the UK out of the EU altogether.

Just as Donald Trump has pushed protectionism and nativism to the forefront of American politics, the Brexit debate has brought out Britain’s ugly side. Former London mayor Boris Johnson said recently that the presence of foreign-born workers in Britain was holding women back in the workforce. Nigel Farage, the Euroskeptic leader of the UK Independence Party, recently warned a large crowd in Toronto that Britain was at risk of being swarmed by unchecked legions of Muslim refugees. These protectionists insist that a Britain freed from the EU would somehow be able to create new alliances that summon up all the advantages of free trade without any of the risks or downsides.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign in favour of remaining within the EU has also been largely negative and fear based. And as the vote gets closer, the rhetoric on both sides will no doubt become even shriller. As in the United States, the troubling tone of public debate reflects the economic stagnation being felt by poor and middle-class wage earners. Some parts of Britain and the United States have been in uninterrupted post-industrial decline since the 1980s, and these constituencies will naturally be vulnerable to radical arguments, based on the idea that they’ve got nothing to lose.

The anti-European sentiment in Britain has also been fuelled by the mass exodus from Syria and other Muslim nations, the refugee crisis, and the dramatic terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. (In the US, the San Bernardino attacks had a similar effect on public opinion.) A sense of fear has produced a backlash against the EU promise of open borders. Many Britons now demand that their country reclaim complete control over cross-border migration, citizenship, and security—despite the fact that greater European co-operation would ultimately be a more effective means of dealing with the current crisis. But fewer people are listening to “experts,” and anger seems more of a guide than thinking things through. A friend of mine once wisely counselled that “it’s hard to be smart and angry at the same time.” A Brexit vote would prove that axiom right.

If the Brexit side prevails on June 23, the whole of Europe will feel the after-effects. Referendums in Scotland and Wales could well follow. And the EU member nations of continental Europe would inevitably reconsider their own membership. Markets would likely plunge—thereby creating a fresh round of hysteria and finger pointing: the “paranoid style” of politics once famously identified by Richard Hofstadter is not confined to US shores. A Brexit could be the first domino to fall, causing a chain reaction that could end up rolling back decades of global progress in tearing down trade barriers.

The stakes are high for Canada, a nation whose economic health is dependent on access to export markets, and trade that is based on rules. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have campaigned as protectionists. And even a President Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have to make concessions to this newly resurgent protectionist sentiment. Shortly after his election as Canadian prime minister on a platform of openness and “sunny ways,” Justin Trudeau could find himself confronting the harsh reality of Fortress USA, Fortress Britain, and a disintegrating European Union.

Stephen Harper often attempted to project Canadian leadership on the world stage—especially when it came to protecting Israel and fighting the war against terrorism. Given the emerging threats to any concept of an open international trading system that is based on the rule of law, Trudeau should use Canada’s moral authority to preach the merits of principled internationalism, pluralism, rules-based trade, and a better kind of politics.

The world does need more Canada. And with global attitudes to fundamental economic issues at a tipping point, now is the time for Trudeau to project our values, as well as our interests, on the world stage.

This appeared in the June 2016 issue.

Bob Rae
Bob Rae is a partner in the law firm of Olthuis Kleer Townshend and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He served as Ontario’s 21st Premier and as interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Hudson Christie
Hudson Christie ( is a Toronto-based illustrator whose three-dimensional works have been featured in the New York Times and The New Yorker.