Unity in Diversity, Strength in Asymmetry

For the PDU, Simon Beauchemin argues that we can and should draw lessons for Europe from the asymmetrical nature of Canadian federalism.

Any comparison of Canada and a hypothetical Eurozone federation demands nuance and an appreciation of the immense differences between them.  The Eurozone is a highly diverse entity, comprising over two dozen national identities. Canada by comparison is a young political entity, considerably more unified, although surprisingly not by all measures. These differences, however need not prevent one from drawing lessons for Europe from the asymmetrical nature of Canadian federalism.

One of the clearest lessons to be drawn from the current Eurozone crisis is perhaps the incompatibility of certain one-size-fits-all policies. Most visible perhaps is the negative effect that the ECB’s restrictive monetary policy is having on the growth of struggling Eurozone countries. Asymmetric economic shocks and unsynchronized business cycles are however something that many large countries – federations or not – must deal with. While the EU generally and the Eurozone more precisely may appear inflexible in light of the current crisis, this is not the case. The UK and Sweden are not part of the monetary union. For its part, Denmark opted out from the Common Security and Defence Policy, certain provisions relating to citizenship (since made irrelevant by the Treaty of Amsterdam), and the adoption of the euro. These opt-outs were crucial in securing Danish membership in the EU, and there is no reason to believe that such flexibility would not also be a trademark of a Eurozone federation that included Britain.

Asymmetric economic shocks and unsynchronized business cycles are something that many large countries – federations or not – must deal with.

It is on the subject of asymmetry that Canada may hold some lessons for the Eurozone. Canada evidenced the resilience of its union through its participation in both world wars. Like many countries, debate over participation triggered significant discord. Yet from the battlefields of Europe emerged a new sense of Canadian identity and independence that would influence generations of Canadians to come. Canada has historically been divided into an English-speaking majority and a substantial French-speaking minority concentrated within the province of Québec and, to lesser extents, in the neighbouring provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick. Although pockets of French-Canadians exist elsewhere in the country, it is only in Québec that a separate national identity gradually took shape, culminating in demands for constitutional recognition and even secession. Geography, with vast swaths of land separating major population centres, has also conspired to confer upon Canadians important regional identities even within the English-speaking part of the country, notably in the West. Equally important are the 634 First Nation communities spread across the country, with their own rules of self-governance determined in relation to the Crown.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso (left), and Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso (left), and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

The actual nature, extent and desirability of asymmetrical Canadian federalism is hotly debated, but Canada’s history and geography are such that it has never existed as a perfectly symmetrical federation. At the moment of Confederation – pardon the historical misuse of the term – in 1867, Québec preserved the French civil code and formed a hybrid legal system different from the common law one of the other provinces. The Cullen-Couture Agreement allows Québec to participate in the selection of immigrants, the only province to do so. Internationally, Québec and New Brunswick are considered “participating governments” at the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). The Atlantic Accord allows the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to manage adjacent offshore oil and gas resources. Section 6 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms even allows provinces to restrict the employability of citizens arriving from other provinces – essentially limiting mobility rights – on the basis of high unemployment. Although not a significant political actor, the Canadian Senate is heavily asymmetrical with close to half of its seats being reserved for Ontario and Québec, the country’s two largest provinces. This is highly contentious, with Western provinces demanding equal senatorial representation, something many, especially in Québec, would argue is contrary to the idea of Canada understood as a pact between two founding peoples – English and French. So far, nothing has come of this.

The case of Québec shows that cultural and political diversity can – and should – be preserved in a federal union.

The previous list is far from exhaustive. In particular though, the case of Québec shows that cultural and political diversity can – and should – be preserved in a federal union. In that light, David Cameron’s proposal to renegotiate certain aspects of the UK’s ties with the continent is not necessarily misguided. Reform should be viewed favourably so long as it is undertaken with a view to making the EU stronger and more accommodating to its members through asymmetry and flexibility. It must not constitute an attempt to gain a competitive edge over the rest of Europe as such a zero-sum mentality would be counter-productive. In Québec, reforms to the federal system have been achieved or rejected because of different understandings of what federalism is. As this article has explained, in the eastern French-speaking part of Canada, federalism is viewed as a pact between two founding peoples. On the other hand, perhaps a majority in the rest of the country would argue it is a pact between 10 equal provinces. It is in a similar sense that the United Kingdom must argue its case. Under no circumstances must the process be hijacked by Conservative backbenchers or UKIP MPs who have yet to recognize the immeasurable benefits the UK gains from membership in the EU.

That the UK is looking for reform should not prevent political leaders, British or otherwise, from considering potential further integration with the Eurozone along federal lines as a means of solving the current crisis. On the contrary, it could serve to demonstrate the potential flexibility of a hypothetical federation, one in which member states can reap the benefits of integration while pursuing legitimate specificities.

Most concerns about UK membership to the EU (and to a potential Eurozone federation) are centered on British competitiveness. The UK sees its flexible labour market as an asset, and wishes to keep it that way. Recent EU financial regulations have also been interpreted as a direct assault on the City of London, pushing some business leaders into the club of Eurosceptics. Preserving Britain’s prevailing business culture would not be altogether difficult to achieve. As opposed to France where stricter legislation has been implemented, it is possible to opt out of the 48-hour work week imposed by the Working Time Directive in the UK. Again, it is not unthinkable that further compromises of the sort could be hammered out in an asymmetrical federal union.

More and more countries are moving down the path of economic integration. Throughout Europe, there is a consensus that the institutional status quo is unsustainable. Many, including the PDU, argue that further political integration of the Eurozone plus the UK along federal lines is the optimal solution. Regardless of whether or not this vision is shared by all, Canada, albeit not perfect, offers some enticing examples of how asymmetry can be employed to accommodate national specificities, cultural, political, economic or otherwise.

Image: “G20 Leaders’ Summit“ courtesy of the President of the European Council, published under creative commons 2.0, share alike.

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