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Justin Trudeau’s ‘Woke’ Politics Canada’s election – what implications for the UK?

Foreign elections are seldom of much interest to the British public unless they involve one of the big players, such as the US, or vital trade partners like Germany or France. But in the imminent post-Brexit world of Boris Johnson’s vision of global engagement, the change to the political landscape potentially underway in Canada should be taken into account. Canada is the UK’s eighth largest trading partner outside of the EU and the UK ships more than £8 billion worth of exports to Canada each year. Ten days before Brexit, there will be a federal election in Canada and the incumbent left of centre Liberal Party, led by the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is polling close to dead even with the right of centre Conservative Party, led by Andrew Scheer.  Although the Canadian economy has performed reasonably well under Trudeau since he was elected in 2015, his Liberal Party has been dogged with allegations of corruption and needless blockage of lucrative infrastructure projects in the west. His signature policy, legalized marijuana, has been a messy experiment the social consequences of which may not materialize for years.

On the international stage, the Liberal Party of Canada has, under Trudeau’s leadership, bolstered its relations with the EU, culminating in the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade and Agreement (CETA) in 2016. Although CETA began life under the previous Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, its ultimate success was driven in no small part by Trudeau’s diplomatic engagement with EU leaders. Canada also has been an enthusiastic partner in the EU’s reforms to investment arbitration and more recently efforts to resolve the damaging impasse in the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization.

The son of Canada’s longest serving, and famously left-wing, prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, Justin is an advocate of many of the issues dear to the heart of European federalists, including economic integration and contemporary causes such as climate change and migration. He is keen to differentiate himself from US President Donald Trump, who has taken a distinctly contrarian stance on many progressive issues of the day, much to the consternation of the EU and some of its member states.

In one of his rare moments on the global economic stage, Trudeau held up the last minute negotiations of the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership because he felt it was insufficiently reflective of social issues such as the environment, labour, as well as indigenous peoples’ and women’s rights. It is widely understood that the mega-regional trade agreement’s official name, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership was down to him. He is a singularly ‘woke’ leader for a woke age. This is key to his image and so far it has worked, notwithstanding a few embarrassing mis-steps such as his tone-deaf ‘traditional’ Indian clothes, his insistence on the use of the word ‘peoplekind’ to virtue-signal his self-described feminism and his recently exposed penchant for wearing blackface at parties.

Of more concern to the British if Trudeau were to win re-election in October, is that his amity with the EU coupled with his progressiveness could frustrate the UK’s future relationship with Canada – Trudeau is a close friend of France’s President Macron, an arch-EU federalist and we should not forget that the EU is fundamentally uncomfortable with a successful free trading, low regulation global competitor such as the UK on its doorstep. This is a far cry from Stephen Harper’s well-publicized love of Britain and the Commonwealth. More worryingly, Trudeau is on record for encouraging Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to take advantage of the UK’s Brexit isolation to enhance its standing on the global stage.

On a future trade deal, although Trudeau assured Boris Johnson at the G7 this summer that Canada will proceed with a smooth transition trade relationship after Brexit (presumably meaning a roll-over of the CETA), it is far from clear that this commitment will materialize any time soon. A number of countries have agreed trade continuity agreements with the UK (roughly 40 at last count) but Canada is not one of them. Its failure to make good on this promise, originally made years ago to Theresa May, is disappointing. Instead, Canada seems perfectly willing to take advantage of the UK’s plan to offer zero tariffs on a wide range of goods after Brexit, making a preferential trade agreement less attractive. With friends like these…

Canada may yet offer Brexit Britain a CETA plus style trade agreement, regardless of who is in charge. It is still early to tell, not the least because many in the UK are sure what kind of Brexit it wants.

But in the short to medium term, a Conservative victory in the Canadian election would be a better outcome for the UK. The Conservatives under Andrew Scheer, who has backed Brexit publicly for some time and who is more economically liberal in the classic sense, would almost certainly make trade relations with the UK a top international priority were they to triumph this fall.


Professor David Collins

David Collins is Professor of International Economic Law at City, University of London and a member of Politeia's Academic Advisory Council. A WTO specialist, he previously practised commercial litigation in Toronto and was a prosecutor for the Attorney General in Ontario, Canada. His publications include The Public International Law of Trade in Legal Services (Cambridge, 2019), An Introduction to International Investment Law (Cambridge, 2016).

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