Dion’s dual appointment: Diplomatic mistake or a show of support for Europe?

Stéphane Dion’s ambassadorship to both the EU and Germany has received criticism from some commentators this month, but the appointment might be more strategic than first thought, argues Jonathan Scott. 

By: /
February 14, 2017
Stephane Dion
Former Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion receives a standing ovation as he delivers his farewell speech in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

After three weeks of mulling it over, Stéphane Dion recently accepted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s invitation to be ambassador to the European Union and Germany. In fêting Dion in the House of Commons, Trudeau referred to the former foreign minister as “my ambassador to a continent that is one of our most important partners.”

Foreign policy often involves the interpretation of symbolic gestures — this dual appointment is no different, and raises some intriguing questions. 

On the one hand, arguably, it calls into question just how important the region is to the Canadian government. An ambassadorship by the same person simultaneously to two major jurisdictions is very rare, if not unprecedented, and comes with the risk of a split mission. What sort of symbol does it send about the geopolitical balance in Europe when the Canadian ambassador to the EU is also the ambassador to Germany? 

Writing in The Globe and Mail, columnist Andrew Cohen suggests Dion's double-crown role "is a folly on every level. It will offend the Germans, dilute Canada's representation in Berlin and Brussels and alienate our better-qualified diplomats in Ottawa." (I'm not convinced the dual appointment is such a disaster, although Cohen is perhaps right that the move is designed to fix a "personnel problem" first and foremost.)

On the other hand, this dual appointment could be a signal that Canada supports a united Europe and wants to demonstrate this commitment by placing its EU ambassador concurrently as the ambassador to the de facto head of the European project.

After all, Dion, is well versed in unifying efforts — as intergovernmental affairs minister under Jean Chrétien, he authored The Clarity Act in response to Québec's possible secession. The government’s appointing of a staunch federalist to Europe at this time of creeping nationalism and movements to leave the EU, most prominently with Brexit, is certainly interesting (and possibly strategic). 

Yet, the dual role also implies German leadership of the EU, which is a sore point in other member states, particularly the United Kingdom. 

Despite these implications, Dion's appointment was largely met with a shrug — save for a few sharp critiques in the Canadian media — and accepted as a means to essentially give him a face-saving soft landing as he was being moved out of Global Affairs Canada in favour of former trade minister Chrystia Freeland, who was appointed foreign minister earlier in January.  

Lost in the shuffle, however, is how Europe will perceive the dual ambassadorship. As yet, the move has not really attracted much notice. This may change this week with Trudeau’s visit to France and Germany; on Wednesday, he will become the first sitting Canadian prime minister to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. 

On a more philosophical note, the questions Dion’s dual appointment raises mirror those around the nature of the EU itself. Is the EU a supranational organization, empowered by its members to act in their collective best interests, or has it moved beyond such an institutional role to be a federal quasi-state, increasingly becoming the United States of Europe (a notion first coined by Italian dissidents during the Second World War and echoed during the Cold War by none other than Sir Winston Churchill)? 

Fear of an "ever closer union” was in part the impetus for the Brexit campaign, despite the compromise of "two-speed Europe,” whereby some member states can band together for enhanced cooperation while others can opt out of increased integration if wary of further political and economic unification. 

Yet, we can only imagine how Britain’s Leave campaign would have seized on a staunch ally such as Canada appointing an ambassador to the EU who is also the ambassador to Germany. Certainly, this move would not have been possible before the Brexit referendum, nor in an alternative universe where Britain voted to stay in the EU. The idea that Canada, its one-time colony and long-time friend, would place an ambassador in both roles simultaneously would have raised eyebrows in London and would have become a blistering talking point of the Eurosceptic groups across Britain, who have long stoked British fears of Germany leading Europe. 

Given German Chancellor Angela Merkel's status as the elder statesperson of the Western world, Germany’s economic strength and stewardship of the Eurozone, and the impending removal of the countervailing weight of Britain from the EU, it is increasingly clear that Germany does hold the unrivalled, preeminent position in Europe.

This is the point made by Sara Drake, the head of EU law at Cardiff University, in an interview last week. She suggests that the original "big four" of Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy will, absent the British, essentially devolve to a Franco-German consensus, with Germany by far the biggest player, both economically and politically. Ironically, she notes, there was once British enthusiasm for an expanded EU, which was originally meant to dilute German dominance within Europe by allowing for new member states such as Poland. Instead, the admission of the new Eastern European member states became a lightning rod of xenophobia in Britain, with slurs against Polish and other Eastern European migrant workers a dark underbelly to the Leave campaign. 

Drake wonders if Trudeau, who is seen as something of a poster child for modern liberalism in Europe, is making an intentional statement with this dual ambassadorship, by using it to signal a clear alliance with Merkel. With Britain on the way out, Merkel is now the de facto head of the European project and the leader most committed to its success. Further, with U.S. President Donald Trump at best indifferent to the EU and likely to appoint as ambassador Ted Malloch, who has openly mused about the EU's disintegration, Drake wonders if Dion's appointment could be "Canada's way of standing with Merkel and with a united Europe.” 

In other words, with Britain sidelining and eventually removing itself through the Brexit process, fears over German dominance of the EU might now come to be reality, and worth recognizing as such, as Canada seems to be doing. 

Drake notes as well, somewhat despondently, the sad irony that it was American leadership, valour and financing that, through the Marshall Plan and the Cold War, helped to rebuild Germany itself and aimed more generally to unite the continent behind the world's most successful peace project. With Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin hostile to what America — and Canada — once helped to create, Trudeau's move with Dion could be a clear and welcome indication of Canada's commitment to the EU. 

In his farewell address to the House of Commons, Dion made reference to some of these concerns. "…the European continent is facing the same challenges as us with respect to ensuring that openness and inclusion triumphs over exclusion and xenophobia, to ensuring a path to inclusive growth, and to demonstrating that free trade be combined with the rights of workers and respect for the environment,” he said. “At this critical time, I will do my part to strengthen Canada's relationship with Europe."

Dion is, as previously mentioned, the political scientist and former cabinet minister who helped usher in The Clarity Act, based on a Canadian Supreme Court ruling stipulating that Québec's possible separation from the rest of Canada could only be done on a clear majority from a referendum with a clear question. 

Arguably, had something resembling The Clarity Act been in place in the UK, the British referendum on membership in the EU, notwithstanding the narrow Leave vote nationwide, would likely have been deemed insufficient, given the close margin, to have triggered the messy divorce the British government is now rushing towards in invoking Article 50 next month. 

Dion has always been an outspoken, brilliant and stubborn politician. His voice for federalism will no doubt be a welcome one in Berlin and Brussels. Even if inadvertently, in appointing him, Trudeau has made an astute pro-EU move, one that aligns Trudeau and Merkel, the last two liberals left standing.