National Column: ‘Leave’ campaign’s wish list is lying in tatters

by Paul Wells

A paradox.

No important British or European personality has said publicly that the U.K. shouldn’t leave the European Union in the wake of the Brexit referendum two weeks ago. They’re unanimous that Leave means Leave. This includes every candidate to replace David Cameron as British Tory leader, poor Jeremy Corbyn across the Commons aisle, and the leaders of France, Germany and the various institutions of the EU.

And yet in Canada’s government there’s a lot of skepticism about whether Brexit will ever happen.

I checked with senior sources at the Prime Minister’s Office, the foreign affairs department (grandly renamed Global Affairs Canada), and in the public service. Each was unconvinced. “Less sure every day,” one of those people said.

How could the U.K. not leave the EU, after everything that’s happened?

The answer lies in the nature of the June 23 referendum. In itself, it wasn’t a decision to exit the Union. That decision must be formally communicated to the European Council – the 28 heads of the 28 EU member countries, presidents, prime ministers and chancellor, meeting in Brussels.

The process for getting a country out of the EU is laid out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. The British prime minister tells his council colleagues Britain intends to leave. That starts a two-year clock ticking on negotiations. At the end of those two years, European treaties cease to function with regard to Britain. Some new bilateral arrangement could take their place, but that moment would mark the end of Britain’s membership in the EU.

Now here’s the thing: David Cameron didn’t invoke Article 50 the morning after he lost the referendum. He didn’t invoke it when he visited the European Council six days later. He’s said he’ll leave the nasty task to his successor, who’s to be in place by the beginning of September. And no candidate to succeed him expects to trigger Article 50 before the new year.

And if they do not want to start the real work in 2016, why on earth would any of them want to do it in 2017? The Leave campaign’s wish list lies in tatters.

They cherished the notion that Britain could abandon its EU obligations but enjoy every benefit. That it could remain a member of the tightest multi-national economic union in history, while picking and choosing who gets to live, work or vote in Britain. That its banks could continue to carry out huge transactions in euros. That investors would build their plants in Kent or Manchester for export to the EU – instead of building them in the EU. Because the whole point of the exercise is that Britain and the EU would be two different things.

“China looks at a pound that’s down 10 per cent and it starts looking for things to buy,” a European diplomat in Ottawa said yesterday. “And then it looks for places to put those things – in Slovakia or Poland.”

My hunch is that every candidate to replace Cameron absolutely intends to trigger Article 50. But they are huffing and puffing about “we’ll do it when we’re good and ready” because they are hoping the answers they’re getting from the rest of Europe, and really the answers they’re getting from the universe, will change. When those answers don’t change, what will make a PM decide Wednesday was a bad day to start the clock ticking, but Thursday is a fine day?

I’m not sure how this whole thing ends. A government that refuses to implement the will of the people would be wrecked in public opinion. A government that implements that will, and demonstrates forever that it was misguided, would not face a better end. It’s a mess.

Is there anything a Canadian prime minister can do? Maybe not. But it’s crazy how popular Justin Trudeau is in European capitals these days. I’m told there’s a traffic jam of leaders hoping for a meeting with him, especially leaders who are heading into an election. That stock of political capital won’t last forever.

But if Trudeau took even a diplomatically veiled version of his bridges-not-walls message to London and Brussels – the latter a destination Canadian prime ministers rarely visit – he would be noticed and heard.

Canada still wants a trade deal with the EU, after all. That deal is worth less if the U.K. is out. A separate trade deal with a separate U.K. would not compensate for the loss. Canada has interests here. So do our historic friends on both sides of the English Channel.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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