National Column: Effort matters more than pep talks

by Paul Wells

I like a good speech, too, just like you. Even when it doesn’t always line up precisely with the facts.

Canada’s Parliament has seen many distinguished visitors, but those who were there will be talking about Barack Obama’s speech for years to come. In the perilous hour, with Britain apparently pulling out of the European Union and Donald Trump the likely Republican nominee for president, Obama made a detailed and compelling case for a more generous path.

“The partnership between the United States and Canada shows the path we need to travel,” the U.S. president said, and here it was clear that by “we,” he meant all humanity.

“Our history and our work together speak to a common set of values to build on, proven values,” he said, listing “pluralism and tolerance, rule of law, openness, global engagement and commerce” among them.

The speech capped a lovely couple of days. Canada announced visa-free travel for Mexicans (by the end of the year). Mexico announced visa-free travel for Canadian beef. North America is coming together, the leaders said. Trump would undo that progress and Europe is moving in the wrong direction.

But at last, here were three men willing to argue for trust over suspicion, progress over retrenchment.

What nags at me is that all the back-patting threatened to obscure some facts.

As I write this, anyone can get on a train in Warsaw and arrive, nearly a day later, in London, without being stopped for an identity check at any of three international borders. The Brits have managed to screw up their part of that amazing achievement, but it will probably still be easier after Brexit to get from London to Paris than it is today to get from Windsor to Detroit.

One of the innovations of this week’s Three Amigos summit will be the creation of a “North American caucus,” a twice-annual meeting of midranking officials from the three countries. That’s a good thing. Simply by preparing for those meetings, they’ll identify problems and practical solutions.

Meanwhile in Europe, by New Year’s Eve the European Council will have met five times in 2016. That’s the heads of government of every European member state, investing all the institutional weight of their offices to gather in Brussels. The level of integration is beyond compare.

“As leaders in global development,” Obama said, “the United States and Canada understand that development is not charity. It’s an investment in our future prosperity.”

This depends how you define a leader.

When assistance budgets are measured as a fraction of gross national income, Canada and the U.S. are nowhere near the top. Eight of the top 10 donor countries are EU member states.

“Refugees escape barrel bombs and torture, migrants cross deserts and seas seeking a better life,” Obama said. “We cannot simply look the other way. We certainly can’t label as possible terrorists vulnerable people who are fleeing terrorists.”

And yet, through the end of April, the U.S. had accepted only 1,736 Syrian refugees this year. Leipzig alone, a German city of half a million people, welcomed more than 5,000 last year.

Obama reserved much of his passion on Wednesday for climate change. Even Alberta is working to cut carbon emissions while sustaining growth, he noted.

“So if Canada can do it and the United States can do it, the whole world can unleash economic growth and protect our planet,” he said.

On this score, most of the world needs less reminding than the U.S. and Canada do. The independent Climate Action Tracker rates the climate-change reduction effort of Brazil, China, India and the EU well ahead of Canada and the U.S.

Of course, Justin Trudeau’s government is working harder to meet Stephen Harper’s emission targets than Stephen Harper’s government did. That’s an improvement, and if a vast and thinly populated northern country can meet even modest targets, it will have earned the right to look the world in the eye. That’s not a right to lecture.

I’m not saying Obama should have hung his head and apologized for North America. Direction matters. Intention and philosophy matter. Directionally, North America had a far better week than Europe did, far better than it will enjoy if poor lost Donald Trump hosts next year’s summit. But in the end, sustained effort will matter more than a pep talk.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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