A modest proposal for the U.K. as it eyes NAFTA — join Canada instead: Don Pittis

It worked pretty well for Newfoundland. Now that NAFTA is flagging, maybe post-Brexit Britain can find a home as part of the Great White North.

Report suggests the U.K. is considering joining NAFTA, but here's a backup plan if Trump kills the trade deal

Potential future Canadian Prince Harry with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Rather than joining the teetering North America Free Trade Agreement, maybe the U.K. should become part of Canada. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Last week, the London Telegraph, a newspaper famously well-connected to the British conservative establishment, broke a story that Britain was seriously considering becoming part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The paper said government ministers were considering joining NAFTA as a Plan B if the U.K. failed to negotiate a post-Brexit deal with Europe.

Far-fetched as it may seem for a country on the other side of the Atlantic, other reliable news services — including Canadian-owned Reuters — found the account credible enough to pass on in news stories of their own.

"The [Telegraph] said British ministers were looking at joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as part of planning for the possibility of Britain leaving the EU in March 2019 without a trade deal," Reuters reported Tuesday.

C is for Canada

But now that U.S. President Donald Trump is sowing seeds of doubt over whether NAFTA can survive, maybe Britain needs a Plan C.

And C stands for Canada.

This modest proposal may not be well-received by all Britons or by many Canadians, but if British ministers really did have their hearts set on redrawing the lines so that their islands are grouped with North America instead of Europe, joining the Canadian Confederation might be a good first step.

As I'll explain shortly, a full political merger is essential to solve Britain's post-Brexit trade problems. As for why Britain would be joining Canada and not vice-versa, well, it's Britain that has gotten itself into this fix. 

It worked pretty well for Newfoundland, an island about the same size as England, already so far out into the Atlantic that it has its own time zone.

The inclusion of Newfoundland in 1949 has been a great success for the rest of Canada, offering not just fish but some of Canada's cleverest politicians and funniest comedians, never mind all those Alberta oil workers. 

Perhaps Britain would provide some of the same advantages. For instance, zany British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson could be a good fit to replace Rick Mercer, who announced he's retiring from his weekly comedy show.

Could British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson be as funny as Rick Mercer? (Mary Turner/Reuters)

Of course, the U.K. wouldn't really be joining for the first time. Much of North America used to be part of Britain until the unpleasantness between my (theorized) distant relative Sir William Pitt and the Thirteen Colonies over taxation without representation.

By joining Canada rather than linking up with the U.S. proper, they could dodge recriminations over who started it, avoiding another round of "Don't mention the war!" In Canada, the separation process was more amicable, and due to our constitutional link to the British Crown, it never really ended.

In that regard, Canadian money bearing a picture of the British sovereign would be a touchstone to the new citizens of the Great White North.

But it's a dry cold

The weather is not as different as some might think. Winter visitors to Britain know damp and windy conditions just above freezing can feel bleaker than a subzero but dry February day in Winnipeg.

Of course, Brits would have to adjust to Canadian morals. Not just when it comes to smoking pot — for which Canadian youth, even before legalization, are world leaders — but hand-holding.

The staid BBC was recently shocked when Prince Harry was seen holding hands with his sometimes-Toronto-based girlfriend at the Invictus Games. Just a heads-up for the BBC in case this plan goes any further: holding hands is OK in Canada. In Canada, you don't have to be engaged or anything.

That said, a tie-up between the prince and Meghan Markle would have the flavour of a dynastic marriage rejoining the continents, which will just have to do until a future generation of Windsors can work out some sort of marriage deal with the House of Trudeau.

From a strictly trade point of view, becoming part of Canada would solve the problem that drove British Brexiters toward NAFTA to begin with. 

In a world with preferential trading blocs, British politicians know it's dangerous for any country, especially those with a population under 100 million, to become isolated outside one of the global free trade clubs.

Back in the club

With the Brexit referendum, the U.K. voted itself out of Europe, one of the world's best trade partnerships. Following the political split, they just can't seem to work out a new commercial arrangement.

Voila! By joining Canada, Britain could be back on the inside because with CETA — the Canada-Europe free trade deal — Canada has better access to Europe than almost any non-European country in the world, including the U.S.

Regrettably, there are reasons why the Canada-U.K. merger could face insurmountable obstacles.

If the U.K. joined Canada, former proprietor of the London Telegraph, Conrad Black, would regain his citizenship. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

As one British-born friend points out, for the Brexiters, the attraction of North America may actually be a repulsion from those odious Europeans, most of whom speak some foreign language. Things like the European Court of Human Rights and liberal immigration policies rub them the wrong way. In those regards, Canada may provide little relief.

Besides, even before they get a chance to have a second referendum on whether to link up with Canada, there are likely lots of Canadians, including many francophones, who would veto the application.   

Difficult as the scheme might be, one possible voice in favour could be Conrad Black, who was once the proprietor of the Telegraph, the paper that broke the British NAFTA story. With the plan, Black, who gave up his legal links with Canada to accept a seat in the House of Lords, would regain his Canadian citizenship.

With apologies to the CBC radio program This is That, which was likely planning a segment of its own on this important topic, reader comments on the idea of having Britain become part of Canada are welcome below.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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