Brexit proves separation isn’t easy

A few months before the 1995 referendum, Parti Quebecois premier Jacques Parizeau told a private gathering of European Union ambassadors to Canada that if his side prevailed in the upcoming vote, there would be no way for Quebecers to change their minds and back out of the secession project.

To illustrate his point, Parizeau compared the process that would attend a sovereigntist victory to a lobster trap.

As he put it, the politics of reversing a referendum mandate to take Quebec out of the federation would be anything but simple.

It was a crude comparison — one that had not been meant to be in the public domain and that did not go down well when it surfaced in the media — but that did not make it inaccurate.

Watching the political crisis that has been attending the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union, and that has Westminster tied up in knots this week, one could not but be reminded of the late premier’s depiction of the aftermath of a yes vote.

Had the pro-sovereignty option narrowly prevailed in Quebec in 1995, it is not hard to imagine the post-yes national assembly or the House of Commons in a similar deadlock.

Neither side had a reliable road map on hand to guide it forward. Nor was there consensus as to how to proceed. But there would have been no easy path available to walk back the referendum outcome, regardless of the buyer’s remorse that the predictably rocky aftermath of the vote might have inspired.

Back at the time of the U.K. referendum in 2016, some leading figures in the Quebec sovereignty movement welcomed the pro-Brexit result as a victory for the right of people to determine their political future.

(Given that what is good for the Quebec goose should be good for the British gander, it would have been hard for them to argue otherwise.)

Since then, the early enthusiasm has turned into pained silence. These days, the sovereignty movement is desperately looking for a template to entice younger Quebecers to sign up for another independence drive. The Brexit episode is more likely to act as a disincentive.

In the U.K., the younger cohort is also the most opposed to Brexit. Of the voters aged 18 to 24 who cast a ballot in 2016, 70 per cent voted to remain with the European Union.

Recent polls suggest that proportion has since climbed over 80 per cent. Overall, voters over the age of 45 have been the driving force behind Brexit.

Looking at it from the Quebec perspective, it is as if the outgoing generation of baby boomers had imposed its dream of sovereignty on the millennials.

It is not the first time in recent years that Quebec sovereigntists have looked in vain to the international scene for momentum for their flagging cause.

The Brexit upheaval comes on the heels of the referendum defeat of Scotland’s independence bid, Spain’s repression of the Catalan independence movement and — at least as importantly from a Quebec angle — the silence of the international community in the face of the jailing of the latter’s leaders.

For the most part, Canada’s political class — starting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — would have been happier if U.K. voters had turned Brexit down in 2016. But there is one notable exception.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is Canada’s top Brexit cheerleader. He signalled his support early on in an opinion piece published just before the 2016 U.K. referendum.

A few weeks before he secured the party leadership in May 2017, Scheer boasted on Twitter about having been a pro-Brexit supporter “before it was cool.”

Last November, the Conservative leader told The Canadian Press his enthusiasm for Brexit was undiminished by the havoc it is wreaking in the U.K.’s political circles or, for that matter, by his own national responsibilities.

The glaring incapacity of the U.K.’s political class to agree on a reasonable way forward should normally have given pause to any responsible political leader.

But Scheer believes the restoring of what he construes as the U.K.’s full sovereignty trumps economics and trade. The late Parizeau would almost certainly not disagree.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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