Marois makes foreign affairs into a unity issue

October 17, 2012

For a while there, Pauline Marois was looking unfashionably retro for a separatist leader in Europe.

In Scotland, separatists have a referendum date. In Flanders and Catalonia, their fortunes have been fuelled by the Euro crisis. But on her first trip as premier, Ms. Marois seemed to travel to Paris in a time capsule to ask France's President to revive the neutral position on Quebec separatism that was first coined in the 1970s. How passé.

But then she showed she's got some new tricks. She started talking about her own foreign policy. Under Stephen Harper, she charged, Canada's foreign policy has separated from Quebec. With that, she served notice that foreign affairs is a unity issue.

But if she looked around Europe, she'd see her new weapon is a double-edged sword. She's underlining that she wants Quebec to go it alone on the world stage, and that's way more sovereignty than European separatists are seeking.

Separatism is in revival in Europe. In Catalonia, separatist sentiment has been boosted by Spain's economic crisis and 25-per-cent unemployment. It's a relatively prosperous area where some feel they could do better on their own. So is Flanders, the Flemish part of Belgium where separatists just won municipal elections. While Scotland's economy isn't booming, separatists can at least argue they'd be better off if they received all offshore oil revenues.

But even now, the promise that they'd still be part of something bigger – the battered European Union – is crucial to their plans.

But Ms. Marois can't easily make arguments that Quebec would be more prosperous alone. She needs new arguments, and she tried some out abroad.

One goal was to get France's François Hollande to revive an old phrase – non-interference and non-indifference – used to describe neutrality toward Quebec separatists. But it means little, except that Mr. Hollande won't follow Nicolas Sarkozy in belittling Ms. Marois's movement as insular.

More importantly, she talked about her own foreign policy. Ms. Marois, who visited Paris after the Francophonie summit in Kinshasa, suggested Quebec will try to make up for Mr. Harper's disengagement from Africa. She criticized his climate-change inaction and his move away from mediation and multilateralism. His approach to the world is alien to Quebec, she said.

It's a potentially potent message for a separatist leader. Foreign policy is partly identity politics, about how your nation is presented to the world. She's telling Quebeckers Mr. Harper is forcing Quebec to be belligerent, polluting and selfish.

But while in Europe, she might also note that foreign policy isn't a big topic for separatists there. Countries can't set their own international rules, smaller ones have less influence and voters want security.

Separatists in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders all say they'd join the EU. It sets rules in Europe, handles climate, borders, trade and, increasingly, the international diplomacy of smaller European nations. European separatists know political support would collapse if they couldn't offer the safety net of the EU's trading bloc and influence. Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned separatists they might leave Spain but not get into the EU – and be "condemned to nothingness."

But Ms. Marois doesn't have an EU, or even a guarantee Quebec could enter the NAFTA. If she can score points on Mr. Harper by talking about foreign policy, she's also underlining that Quebec would really go it alone in the world, with no backup. Her European counterparts would think it's a tough sell.

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