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A Scottish Neverendum

10 March 2014

A Scottish Neverendum?

The referendum on Scotland’s independence is only six months away, and suddenly the cautious sparring between the Conservative-led coalition government in London and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro-independence government in Edinburgh has turned into open war. London won the first battles, and the “No” side will probably win the referendum in September – but it is going to be a long war.

The opening shot was fired by Chancellor George Osborne in London, who declared that an independent Scotland could not negotiate a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. With only one-tenth of Britain’s population, Scotland is just too small to demand an equal say in how the pound is run. Besides, why would London want to keep the responsibility for Scotland’s huge and rather dodgy banking sector?

Alex Salmond responded by threatening to repudiate Scotland’s share of the national debt if London wouldn’t agree to a currency union, but the conclusion was obvious. Scotland could go on using the British pound if it wanted (like Panama and East Timor use the US dollar), but it could have no formal link.

Next was the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, who warned that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. Other EU members that don’t want their own autonomous regions to secede (he meant Spain) would almost certainly block Scotland’s membership in order not to create a precedent.

Independence was looking more complex and expensive by the minute – and then Standard Life spoke up. The Edinburgh-based company is the largest pension provider in the United Kingdom, managing around $400 billion in assets and employing 5,000 people in Scotland.

Ninety percent of Standard Life’s four million UK customers do not live in Scotland, however, and it warned that it might have to leave if the Scots voted for independence. A poll subsequently revealed that 36 percent of Scottish firms would consider leaving following a “yes” vote.

It was a cold shower for the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the number of people planning to vote “yes” in the referendum dropped to 32 percent, while the “noes” remained unchanged at 57 percent. Lots of Scots would like independence if it doesn’t cost them anything, but they don’t want it badly enough to risk any major changes. Unless something changes quite dramatically, the final vote will be 60-40 or more against independence.

So what are the Scottish Nationalists really hoping to achieve? Originally Salmond planned to build support for independence through a long period of successful government within the UK, but the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011, in the depths of the recession, stoked unrealistic hopes among his militants and forced his hand. Nevertheless, he probably knew he was going to lose this one.

That’s how it worked in Quebec in the 1980 referendum, which the separatists lost 60-40. The idea of leaving Canada and striking out on their own frightened the French-speaking majority in Quebec too much at the time. But it did put the question on the table, and it never really went away again.

Salmond will know the history of Quebec separatism well, for it is the best analogy to his own situation. He will be aware that the second referendum, in 1995, came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. And he will have noticed that the separatist Parti Quebecois is still around, is likely to win the provincial election due on 7 April – and will almost certainly call a third referendum in the next few years.

It’s what English-speaking Quebecers call the “neverendum”, but it actually does end eventually. You only have to win the referendum once. After 34 years of this, the “Rest of Canada” really doesn’t care any more, so there will be no pleas to Quebec to stay this time, no special offers to sweeten the Confederation.

The “Rest of the United Kingdom” is already there: the English, in particular, seem distinctly unmoved by the prospect of Scottish independence. This may be because Scotland has much less of the UK’s population than Quebec has of Canada’s (one-tenth vs. one-fifth), and because Scotland is at the far end of Britain whereas Quebec is in the middle of Canada. So maybe it will only take two referendums in Scotland.

They should pray that this is so, because the four-decade, three-referendum scenario is pretty grim. In Quebec, it caused the most spectacular case of “planning blight” in recent history. The perpetual uncertainty about Quebec’s political and economic future drove the corporate headquarters out (they moved to Toronto), and the immigrants and the investment went elsewhere. The population numbers in Canada’s two biggest provinces tell the story.

In 1980, the year of the first referendum, there were 6.5 million people in Quebec and 8.5 million in Ontario, and the ratio had been steady for most of the century. There are now 8.2 million people in Quebec – and 13.4 million in Ontario. Montreal had always been Canada’s biggest city, but Toronto is now more than 50 percent bigger.

Salmond must know that this is where he is taking Scotland.  He presumably thinks it is worth it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“Alex…link”; and “Independence… vote”)

Separatist Dreams

28 November 2012

Separatist Dreams

By Gwynne Dyer

In other parts of the world, separatist movements are usually violent (e.g. Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the various Kurdish revolts) and they sometimes succeed (South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor). Whereas in the prosperous, democratic countries of the West, they are generally peaceful, frivolous, and unsuccessful.

A case in point is the various separatist movements in the European Union. Scotland will be holding a vote on independence from Britain in 2014, and both Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain have just elected nationalist governments that promise to hold referendums on independence. But it will probably never happen.

The Scots, the Catalans and the Basques tend to see themselves as victims, but nobody else does. They are self-governing in most matters except defence and foreign affairs, they have their own budgets, and they maintain separate education systems and cultural institutions.

The Scots get more money back from the central government in London than they pay in taxes, while Catalonia and the Basque country (Euskara, in the Basque language), claim that they contribute more to Madrid than they receive. But the sums are relatively modest, and in any case it is not necessary to break up the country in order to renegotiate fiscal imbalances.

What really drives the separatism is emotion, which is why popular support for it is so soft. Rectifying the historic defeat of (insert name of centuries-old lost battle here) by declaring independence in the here-and-now has great emotional appeal, but most people put their economic interests first. Nationalist leaders therefore always promise that independence will change nothing important on the economic front.

The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist regions of Spain is by insisting that membership in the European Union would pass automatically to the successor state. The opponents of secession, however, argue that there’s nothing automatic about it.

The arguments are not just directed at the home audience. Last month, when Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, agreed the terms for the 2014 referendum with the British government, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo promptly declared that an independent Scotland would NOT automatically be an EU member, and that any one of the 27 EU member states (like Spain, for example) could veto it.

“In the hypothetical case of independence,” he said, “Scotland would have to join the queue (for EU membership) and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all member states to obtain the status of a candidate country.” The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, also said in September that an independent Scotland would be seen as a new state and would have to apply to join.

This was furiously disputed by Alex Salmond, who knew that his chances of winning the 2014 referendum were nil if the Scots believed that they were voting to leave the EU. For months he insisted that he had sought the opinion of his government’s law officers, who had confirmed that Scotland would inherit EU membership automatically, and would not even have to adopt the euro. Alas, he was lying.

Late last month, it became known that Salmond had not actually asked for the law officers’ opinion at all. Now he has been forced by public opinion to pop the question – and he may not like the answer.

An even bigger defeat for Salmond came in his negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron, where he had to agree that the referendum would ask a simple yes-or-no question: in or out? This goes against the instincts of all separatist leaders, who prefer a fuzzy, feel-good question that doesn’t mention the frightening word “independence” at all.

The most famous formulation of this question was in the 1995 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Not exactly clear, is it?

That referendum was very close, but in 2000 the Canadian federal government passed a law generally known as the “Clarity Act”. It said that negotiations between the federal government and any province on secession should only follow “a clear expression of the will of the population of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada.”

This requirement would not be met, it added, if the referendum question “merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on (independence),” or if the question “envisages other possibilities…, such as economic or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct expression of the will of the population on (secession).”

This law drastically reduces the likelihood that the separatists could win any future referendum in Quebec, and it’s obviously what David Cameron had in mind in his negotiations with Salmond on the Scottish referendum. As for Catalonia and Euskara, the national parliament in Madrid must approve of any referendum on separation, and the current Spanish government has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of doing that.

So it’s mostly just hot air and hurt feelings, really.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The Scots get…imbalances”; and “In the hypothetical…join”)

 

Race for the Arctic

1 August 2012

Race for the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

Russian television contacted me last night asking me to go on a programme about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources – especially oil and gas – that become accessible when it’s gone.

The media always love conflict, and now that the Cold War is long gone, there’s no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flash-points and what are the strategies? It’s great fun to speculate about possible wars.

In the end I didn’t do the interview because the Skype didn’t work, so I didn’t get the chance to rain on their parade. But here’s what I would have said to the Russians if my server hadn’t gone down at the wrong time.

First, you should never ask the barber if you need a haircut. The armed forces in every country are always looking for reasons to worry about impending conflict, because that’s the only reason that their governments will spend money on them. Sometimes they will be right to worry, and sometimes they will be wrong, but right or wrong, they will predict conflict. Like the barbers, it’s in their professional interest to say you need their services.

So you’d be better off to ask somebody who doesn’t have a stake in the game. As I don’t own a single warship, I’m practically ideal for the job. And I don’t think there will be any significant role for the armed forces in the Arctic, although there is certainly going to be a huge investment in exploiting the region’s resources.

There are three separate “resources” in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes that are opening up to commercial traffic along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits that can be drilled once the ice retreats. And in the water in between, there is the planet’s last unfished ocean.

The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes that the North-West Passage that weaves between Canada’s Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Practically every summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels north to declare his determination to defend Canada’s Arctic sovereignty from – well, it’s not clear from exactly whom, but it’s a great photo op.

Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it’s all much ado about nothing. The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia’s “Northern Sea Route” will get the traffic, because it’s already open and much safer to navigate.

Then there’s the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed, which the US Geological Survey has forecast may contain almost one-fourth of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources. But from a military point of view, there’s only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.

There are only four areas where the boundaries are disputed. Two are between Canada and its eastern and western neighbours in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark (which is responsible for Greenland’s defence).

In the Bering Strait, there is a treaty defining the seabed boundary between the United States and Russia, signed in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Duma has refused to ratify it. However, the legal uncertainty caused by the dispute is likelier to deter future investment in drilling there than to lead to war.

And then there was the seabed boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between NATO (of which Norway is a member) and the Russian Federation.

Which leaves the fish, and it’s hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world’s fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out, as they are currently doing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

If the countries with Arctic coastlines want to preserve this resource, they can only do so by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there too, with agreed catch limits, since it is mostly international waters. They will be driven to cooperate, in their own interests.

So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact that the ice IS melting, which will speed global warming (because open water absorbs far more heat from the Sun than highly reflective ice), and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap and raise sea levels worldwide by seven metres (23 ft). But that’s a problem for another day.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“First…resources”)

 

 

Power Shift to Asia: No Need To Panic

19 February 2012

Power Shift to Asia: No Need To Panic

By Gwynne Dyer

On February 15th, just as Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping arrived in the United States for a four-day visit, US President Barack Obama told an audience of American workers in Milwaukee: “Manufacturing is coming back!” Coming back from China, that is. But while the Master Lock Company of Milwaukee has indeed moved some jobs back to the United States, everybody knows that the flow will really continue to be in the other direction.

It doesn’t matter whether China’s economy finally overtakes America’s in 2020, or 2025, or 2030. A great shift of productivity and wealth is underway, and economic power generally translates pretty directly into military power. So will the United States and China be able to manage the shift without a great war?

At the end of Vice-President Xi’s US visit on 18 February, the future Chinese leader assured delegates at a trade conference in Los Angeles: “A prosperous and stable China will not be a threat to any country. It will only be a positive force for world peace and development.” Perhaps, but everybody else is very nervous about it.

The transition from one dominant world economic power to another is always tricky, and the historical precedents are not encouraging. Spain was the 16th-century superpower, and the shift to French domination, though never complete, entailed several generations of war. Then Britain displaced France, amidst several more generations of war.

When Germany challenged British supremacy and Japan began building its empire in the Pacific and East Asia in the early 20th century, the transition involved two world wars – and resulted in the de facto division of the world between two non-European superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The omens are not promising, to say the least.

Both the US and the Chinese armed forces use these precedents to argue for greater military spending. The Chinese generals mostly do it privately, within the confines of Communist Party hierarchy. American military leaders do it more publicly, by coming up with risk assessments designed to frighten the public into keeping defence spending up, but they both groups play the same game.

They can’t help it. Their military training and their whole world-view condition them to expect conflict, and their corporate interest in a higher defence budget leads them to define almost any change as a threat. It sometimes feels like we are doomed to repeat the past endlessly.

But the past is a complicated place, and there is a systematic distortion of history that emphasises violent transitions at the expense of peaceful ones. In fact, at least one major power shift in the past century was entirely peaceful.

The US economy overtook Britain’s late in the 19th century, and it was not inevitable that the change in the pecking order would be peaceful. The time when the two countries would be close allies was still far in the future, and throughout the 19th century Americans continued to see Britain, their old colonial master, as their most dangerous enemy. The two countries fought their last war in 1812-1814, but Britain kept a garrison in Canada until 1870.

London then withdrew the garrison, but not because it trusted the United States. It just calculated that the United States was now so strong that Britain could never win a land war against it in North America. It also concluded that a large Royal Navy presence in American waters was likely to drive the United States into a naval arms race that Britain would lose, and so began thinning out the number of warships that it kept in the western Atlantic.

It was the right strategy. The United States never invaded Canada again, and although it meddled a great deal in the affairs of various Caribbean and Central American countries, that did not threaten any British vital interest. The thorny crown of being the world’s greatest power passed from Britain to the United States without a war, and within one more generation the two countries were actually allies.

So now it’s America’s turn to figure out what to do about an emerging great-power rival on the far side of a great ocean, and one option would be to copy Britain’s example. Don’t provoke the Chinese by hemming their country in with air bases, carrier fleets and military alliances, and they’ll probably behave well. If they don’t, then the other Asian great powers, Japan, India and Russia, are quite capable of protecting their own interests.

The United States has no truly vital interests on the Asian mainland, or at least none that it could protect by fighting China. It was entirely safe from foreign attack before it became the world’s greatest power, and it will still be militarily invulnerable long after it loses that distinction.

Britain is a lot more prosperous than it was when it ran the world, and its people are probably happier too. Decline (especially decline that is only relative) is not nearly as bad a fate as Americans imagine.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit, paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Both…endlessly”)