Britain exits the EU and enters uncertainty

Click to play video: 'Boris Johnson says U.K. departure from EU is ‘new act’ for country' Boris Johnson says U.K. departure from EU is ‘new act’ for country
WATCH: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K.’s departure from the European Union meant a "new act" for the country – Jan 31, 2020

Brexit is finally done. The complicated knot that tied the United Kingdom to the European Union was severed on Friday at the stroke of midnight.

I hope that I am wrong, but I think this move by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a totally unnecessary madness and another step in the long march towards turning the country into Once Great Britain.

READ MORE: European Union, U.K. brace for complicated trade talks after Brexit

Britannia’s break with the EU has already caused years of trauma on the far side of the pond. But predictions that when separation came it would cause a real shock have already been proven to have been exaggerated. All those years of uncertainty have given governments and financial planners on both sides of the English Channel, and elsewhere, lots of time to prepare for the worst.

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Because of this, there is nothing more urgent about the U.K.’s or the EU’s situations today than there was last week or one year ago.

It is not a crisis, though it may become one as Johnson’s plan to give Britain a revolutionary makeover takes hold. Among his intentions: to severely restrict the rights of millions of Europeans to work in Britain; establish more jails; spend more money in the impoverished north; and look far more to Washington than to Berlin, Frankfurt or Brussels.

Click to play video: 'Mixed emotions on UK’s final day in the European Union' Mixed emotions on UK’s final day in the European Union
Mixed emotions on UK’s final day in the European Union – Jan 31, 2020

Doomsayers remain convinced that Brexit will represent a change in direction for British living standards; overall income; for exports, which have hardly been thriving; and for the pound, which has shriveled in value against the U.S. and Canadian dollars over the past few years.

However any of that turns out, Brexit poses a growing set of quandaries for outsiders who for so long have regarded Britain as a Rock of Gibraltar, even as its empire and economy withered and old rivals such as Germany and France and colonial upstarts such as Canada and Australia became regarded as more financially stable.

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Still, it is hard to imagine how this rupture between the U.K. and the EU will have much impact on Canada, though a few somewhat unpredictable second- and third-order effects can be expected in the coming years.

For now, there will be a year of grace. That’s because the newish Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that the Harper and Trudeau governments negotiated with the EU will cover trade between Canada and Britain for another 12 months.

READ MORE: Brexit is final — U.K. formally leaves EU 3 years after referendum

Though it is not certain, by this time next year there may be a somewhat similar bi-national deal struck between Canada and Britain. Failing that, it is possible the current CETA arrangement will be extended for yet another year. Or, better than that if Johnson has his way, a multilateral trade pact could be made that would include Canada and the dominions of Australia and New Zealand.

Canada’s enthusiasm for extending the CETA with Britain or modifying it is not yet clear. This is prudent. There is no reason for haste because nobody really yet knows what Britain’s quitting the EU will mean. Among other things, Canada may wish to protect its banking industry from marauding British banks.

Canada and the EU must still work out kinks in their evolving trade relationship. Getting that right has to be a higher priority for Ottawa than a trade deal with Britain, because the European bloc is far bigger and does a lot more trade with Canada than what Canadians used to call the Mother Country.
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As part of a trade deal, Ottawa should insist that its citizens once again get preferential treatment when they arrive at British airports. This was the way it was before Britain joined the EU. Part of that arrangement gave Europeans priority at ports of entry and stuck Canadians as well as Americans, Australians and New Zealanders in dire, long, separate queues with the rest of the world. This was not much a thank you for what these four countries did for Blighty during the war years, and undermined Britain’s claim that it had special relationships with its closest war allies.

As for second- and third-order effects, many Canadian businesses have developed European partners, but until now they have maintained closer businesses ties in Britain. Some Canadian companies may not want to continue to base their post-Brexit operations in the U.K. but there are now other options that may be more compelling.

If Canadians want to do business in English they could opt for Dublin. Munich, Paris, Hamburg and Amsterdam are also dynamic business-friendly options with highly developed banking systems, brilliant public transportation and proximity to each other.

Click to play video: 'What does Brexit mean for Canada?' What does Brexit mean for Canada?
What does Brexit mean for Canada? – Jan 30, 2020

Canadian negotiators and regulators must also be concerned with the long-term influence of Russian, Chinese and Arab money on the rule of law in the potential hurly-burly of the post-Brexit economic environment.

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Not that Brexiteers seem to care, but Vladimir Putin was accused of interfering in the 2016 referendum that narrowly approved the U.K.’s split from the EU. Putin’s public support for Brexit since then, and the support of his country’s big steel and oil companies for his highly nationalistic goal of returning Russia to greatness, has had an obvious sub-text. That is Putin’s intention to further polarize western Europe, which already has a sharp North-South economic divide, and wherever and however possible to put fresh strains on the NATO security alliance.

Thinking even more cynically, Russia’s oligarchs, who largely agree with their president’s Brexit agenda, have poured hundreds of billions of pounds into the London Stock Exchange and British real estate. Without EU constraints this could have a damning effect on Britain’s important financial regulatory domains, with possible knock-on effects for the rule of law globally. As it is, Britain and Britons have long had an unsavoury reputation for closing their eyes and holding their noses when those from just about anywhere else wash ashore with their mighty misbegotten fortunes.

READ MORE: Brexit is official. Here’s what happens next

Such matters should mean a lot to Canadian politicians and regulators. What is likely to get far more attention from most Canadians is that Britons, despite the jubilation of the Brexiteers, are now left with a not-very-united United Kingdom. Scotland may soon vote on independence, with Northern Ireland perhaps to follow.

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Any ruptures could have a chilling effect on Canada’s internal politics and unity. And not just in Quebec  — in western Canada, too.

For now, though, despite the commotion and confusion that have always enveloped the Brexit question in a black cloak, and the harm that this weekend’s fracture could cause the British economy and reputation, for now the effect of this divorce on Canada will be inconsequential.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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