New British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab came to tell us Canadians we’ll be even closer partners after Brexit.
But no, Mr. Raab, you’ll be too busy staring at your navel for the next few years, and sorting out the mess with your biggest partners after Brexit, for us to focus on each other.
We Canadians know what that’s like. When Donald Trump was threatening to tear up NAFTA, there wasn’t anything more all-consuming than getting through a renegotiation.
In the meantime, Britain won’t have the bandwidth to make Canada a closer partner. And the truth is, Canada doesn’t have to see Britain as crucial, either.
Of course, much depends on whether Mr. Raab’s boss, new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stays in power long enough to execute a departure from the European Union on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. That’s far from certain.
That uncertainty is why Mr. Raab came to Canada only two weeks after he became Foreign Secretary. Mr. Johnson’s government wants to show Britons there are other countries outside the EU that can be their partners.
Mr. Johnson has made it sound like it will be quick and easy, after leaving the European Union, to strike a new trade agreement with the United States. Mr. Raab is on to Washington next.
Mr. Johnson’s government wants people to think a Canadian trade deal would be a piece of cake, too. Many in Britain worry about breaking away from their largest trading partners in the EU. Mr. Johnson has spread the notion that there will be ready replacements. But it won’t be easy. Or quick.
In some ways, Britain is an ideal foreign-relations partner for Canada. After meeting Mr. Raab in Toronto on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland talked about the two countries as “cousins.” Mr. Raab, writing in The Globe and Mail before the meeting, noted that in some countries, such as Haiti, the two countries even share an embassy.
Then, Mr. Raab wrote about closer ties after Brexit: a “new bilateral economic relationship,” co-operation to reform the World Trade Organization (now gummed up by the Trump administration), joint work on development or preserving oceans.
Some of that co-operation will happen, as it has before. But a new era of closer ties? Not soon, anyway.
Britain is already a distracted participant in world affairs. If there’s a no-deal Brexit, it will be more so.
There will be hugely controversial domestic aspects of Brexit to sort out, such as the appearance of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Britain’s economic interests will require working out new post-Brexit trade rules with the EU. That’s a major, complicated negotiation. And then the United States, and as Canadian officials can attest, the Trump administration won’t negotiate based on friendship. Maybe a trade deal with Canada would come after that. That’s a lot of complicated talks, and the British government hasn’t handled a trade negotiation in 50 years. WTO reform won’t top the agenda.
The post-Brexit trade talks with the EU, and perhaps the United States, will suck up British attention. Ask Ms. Freeland. The Canadian Foreign Minister is responsible for the world but spent most of 2018 on NAFTA. It was the central focus for Justin Trudeau’s Prime Minister’s office, too.
Canada doesn’t have to be desperate for a British trade deal, either. The British government wants a rollover deal to keep rules from the Canada-EU deal, but they have promised all countries low tariffs immediately after Brexit, so there’s no rush.
Britain has the world’s fifth-largest economy, and it could be an important market for services. But it’s not all-important. It is Canada’s third-largest trading partner, but to put it in perspective, it bought 2.9 per cent of Canadian merchandise exports in 2018, while 74.3 per cent went to the United States. And two-thirds of Canada’s exports were gold bars and bullion headed to the London commodity and financial markets – the British government won’t be slapping tariffs on that.
No, in the end, neither side will feel a pull for a new era of close ties after Brexit.
The British will be occupied elsewhere. We might hear Mr. Johnson staking out a more distinctly non-EU foreign policy at the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz later this month, but then his post-Brexit foreign policy in a dog-eat-dog world will revolve around how much he will curry Mr. Trump’s favour. Britain will be sorting out its own problems, so a new era of close ties with Canada isn’t coming soon.