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Piali Das Gupta: Canada shows how councils can influence Brexit

Piali Das Gupta
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About a year ago, Canada’s major national newspaper The Globe and Mail published a Brexit article asking whether the Scots might consider becoming a province of Canada.

The piece reasoned that, as the country’s third largest province, Scotland would have real clout within the federation and would not be easily sidelined in discussions of the magnitude of Brexit. Moreover, it argued that even a “typical” Canadian province has more powers than Scotland does now.

The writer need not to have limited himself to Scotland. The West Midlands and Kent both contain a greater proportion of the UK’s population than the province of New Brunswick within Canada.

Yet neither area seems to be getting the level of sub-national engagement and analysis that occurred during the seven years of negotiations for the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (Ceta).

New Brunswick is one of Canada’s smallest provinces by population and receives federal equalisation payments to be able to offer services of a comparable standard to those in the rest of the country. So it is not necessarily an economic powerhouse but it still had a voice when the negotiations were going on.

For instance, Ceta removes free trade barriers on the fishing industry but also leaves other elements of the industry vulnerable to challenge. To protect the interests of Maritime provinces, the Canadian government negotiated various provincial rights, including the ability to restrict foreign ownership of fishing licences.

And what of Canadian cities within the trade debate? Their voice is admittedly not as powerful, but the municipalities still have a standing platform for discussing trade and investment matters with the federal government.

In 2001, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) successfully lobbied for the creation of the joint working group as a forum for discussing issues relating to international trade agreements.

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the influence of municipal government on Canada’s trade policy. Indeed, there are commentators in Canada who argue that Ceta threw municipal impotence into sharp relief by opening up public procurement and public services such as water, energy and transit to foreign companies for the first time.

The FCM argues that it worked closely with the federal government for two years to have “high value” contracts excluded from the agreement to ensure that municipalities could still award those on the basis of local interests.

So if Canada has one lesson to impart to English local government during Brexit, it’s that we need our own direct relationships with the Department for Exiting the European Union and the key departments whose policies stand to be affected by the UK’s departure from the EU.

Working through an intermediary department simply cannot ensure that the centre grasps the range of potential impacts across the country from the interaction of different elements of an exit agreement.

It is too soon to tell how Canadian municipalities will fare under Ceta, which only came into effect in September. But they have seven years of experience observing and trying to influence free trade negotiations that English local government could stand to learn from.

Piali Das Gupta, head of policy, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers


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