The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, called “Brexit” for short, shambles on with no end in sight.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal with the European Union was ignominiously voted down by the British Parliament, and May narrowly survived a no-confidence vote that would have toppled her government.
There are rumblings that Scotland may decide to leave the United Kingdom, and that Northern Ireland would also secede and formally join the rest of Ireland. British business leaders are warning about the economic headaches that could result from losing access to the European market.
Watching the Brexit debate from across the Atlantic, I’m reminded of how similar Brexit is to the debates over Quebec separation nearly 25 years ago, and the more recent rumblings in Alberta that we should separate from Canada. What the separatists didn’t consider – and still don’t in the case of Alberta – is how Brexit shows that a separation referendum wouldn’t be the end of their problems, it would just be the beginning.
For one thing, if Brexit goes ahead the United Kingdom itself could fracture with the departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1995, many people were saying if Quebec separated from Canada, parts of Quebec that wanted to rejoin Canada, such as Indigenous communities, had the right to do so. They encouraged the federal government to play hardball with a separate Quebec on the issue. A separate Alberta would be just as divisible as Quebec.
And then there are the economic problems that would result. In 1995, people were urging Ottawa to take a hard line on negotiating things like the use of the Canadian dollar and taking a share of the national debt. The rest of Canada would no doubt take a hard line with a separate Alberta, too. Both a separate Quebec and Alberta would be subject to any tariffs the rest of Canada or the United States decided to levy against them.
And no, the rest of Canada would not be required to let Alberta build a pipeline through its territory, either. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea doesn’t impact infrastructure built on land to get products to port – and even if it did, the rest of Canada would still be free to levy tariffs against our oil or anything else.
Aside from all the formal political problems, Brexit has led to serious fault lines in British society. The country is polarized between “Leave” and “Remain” supporters. Even if Brexit itself is quickly resolved, the acrimony in the UK itself is likely to fester for much longer. Who here in Canada can forget the ill will that’s resulted from the 1995 Quebec referendum, especially since we never actually resolved the issues that caused it?
Quebec separatists in 1995 and Alberta separatists today came across as acting like separation would magically cure all of their provinces’ problems, whether language retention or oil pricing issues. As Brexit shows, separation likely wouldn’t solve these problems.
It would just make them worse.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.