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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Why the Canadian election matters to Europe

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Europe has been so busy saying goodbye to its favorite German leader that it hasn’t even noticed that its liberal friend in Canada could be on the verge of taking his own bow. 

Monday’s parliamentary election has turned into a much tougher race than Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expected, and he could lose his job after almost six years in office. 

The Canadian leader, who had been leading a minority government, called a snap election in mid-August, backed by favorable polls that indicated he might be able to win a majority in parliament. But his gamble soon turned sour as Canadians unexpectedly started looking to his relatively unknown Conservative opponent, Erin O’Toole.

The Liberals and the Conservatives are now in a dead heat, each polling at around 30 percent. Thanks to the vagaries of Canada’s electoral system, most predictions call for Trudeau to scrape in with another minority government. However, there is also a chance that Europe will have to deal with a new Conservative Party prime minister in Ottawa whose agenda is very different from Trudeau’s.

Any change in Ottawa could cause tremors in Europe, which has enjoyed a steady relationship with Trudeau’s government, giving the bloc a predictable partner on climate issues, human rights, technology, migration and defense as it navigated rocky relationships with other key allies like the U.S. under Donald Trump.

Here are a few key areas that could be affected.

CANZUK dreams

Four years after Brussels cinched a major trade agreement with Canada, several European capitals such as Berlin and Amsterdam have yet to greenlight the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA — leaving billions of euros in goods and services at stake. Several European consumer advocacy groups have filed lawsuits challenging the deal.

O’Toole, 48, does not see Europe as an immediate priority for trade. His policy platform contains very few references to trade with the EU, instead proposing to boost Canada’s relations and exchanges with the U.K., Commonwealth countries and the U.S., where he aims to harmonize farm product regulations.

He has pledged to launch a new trade deal with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. — a grouping called CANZUK that’s supported by many Brexit advocates.

The Conservative Party said it would also pursue a trade deal and investment treaty with India.

Separately, O’Toole has promised to enlarge the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, creating more trade links between Canada and several countries in South and Central America and Asia.

For all of O’Toole’s plans, it would be hard for him to dismiss Europe, which is Canada’s third-largest trading partner behind the U.S. and China, with over €79 billion of goods and services exchanged in 2020.

Go slow on climate change

The Conservative leader has signaled he would do a near U-turn from Trudeau on climate change policy.

As one of the world’s highest polluting countries per capita, Canada under Trudeau began implementing climate-friendly policies to limit the footprint of its powerful oil and gas industry, despite considerable pushback in parts of the country. In April, he announced an increase in the pledge Canada made in the 2015 Paris Agreement — aiming to cut emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

O’Toole would return to Canada’s previous objective of slashing emissions by 30 percent by 2030. At a climate summit, O’Toole accused the Liberal government of promoting climate ambitions just to impress the international community, while letting Canada’s oil industry decline. 

While O’Toole did lay out a climate action plan — a change from his party’s past approach — he also said a Conservative government would revive dead pipeline projects and build new ones. 

“We should make sure that democratic countries use Canadian resources, not resources from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or Russia,” he said.

The Conservative Party, which wants to protect the country’s oil and gas industry, has pledged to crack down on pipeline protester blockades, lift bans on oil tankers in protected natural areas and pour more money into offshore oil drilling and natural gas exports.

It also wants to cap the price on carbon, a key tool to curb emissions. The Conservatives want to go no higher than 50 Canadian dollars (€33.40) per ton — up from the current 40 Canadian dollars. Trudeau’s government has planned yearly increases up to 170 Canadian dollars a ton by 2030.

“Having a market-based approach means that we cannot ignore the fact that our integrated North American partner — the United States — does not yet have a national carbon pricing system,” the conservative platform reads.

Pivot to Asia

Pitching Canada as a Pacific nation, O’Toole’s election platform argues: “It is in Canada’s interest to join our allies in securing the future of a peaceful Indo-Pacific.”

The Montreal native has taken a hawkish stance on China, promising to ban Huawei equipment from 5G network infrastructure to protect national security and doubling down on rhetoric about “China’s aggression.”

The approach contrasts with Trudeau, who has been more careful dealing with the Asian powerhouse, mirroring the approach taken in much of Europe. 

On Thursday, O’Toole said a Conservative government would push to join the U.S., U.K., and Australia in their recently unveiled defense-and-technology-sharing pact. He also said he would seek to join the Quad alliance, which comprises the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

“Canada is becoming irrelevant under Mr. Trudeau,” O’Toole said at a campaign stop Thursday. “We’re becoming more divided at home, less prosperous and the world is a serious place with challenges.”

An unstable outcome

Even if Trudeau’s Liberal Party wins enough seats to form a minority government, he would face a divided and unstable parliament as he would need to seek support from other parties, such as the left-wing New Democratic Party, the separatist Bloc Québécois and the Green Party.

That could make him a more difficult partner for Brussels, and the turmoil caused by such an outcome could continue to destabilize Canadian politics.

“We may not have a clear outcome, in which case we may be going back to the polls in the spring,” said Michael Wernick, a former senior Canadian government official.

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