Published in the Telegraph-Journal 27th November 2012
In the last few weeks, in response to dire predictions about the region’s economic future, there has been a flurry of interest in the concept of a Maritime Union. The University of Moncton’s pre-eminent public policy scholar and serial provocateur Donald Savoie recently reiterated his long-standing proposal that a Maritime Union would be a solution to the region’s economic malaise. This time around, a trio of senators from PEI. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have come forward to support the cause.
Almost immediately, opponents of the concept have emerged to criticize it as unworkable, unrealistic and unnecessary saying that a Maritime Union would receive insufficient support within the Maritimes to make it workable, a merger would take years to accomplish, it would run into vested interests which would defeat it, and it would require constitutional reform the likes of which is not imaginable today.
Few elected politicians have expressed support for such a merger. PEI Premier Robert Ghiz has ridiculed the idea, claiming that a merger of Maritime provinces would actually result in less representation in both the House of Commons and the Senate than under the current provincial model. He stated that three provinces gives the Maritime region “more clout when it comes to dealing with the feds, or dealing with other provinces.” There are other misgivings. A solution to the region`s economic challenges involving a political union rests on the cardinal assumption that bigger is better, and that the unique nature of each of the provinces was less relevant than economies of scale. This assumption is largely untested although one of the proponents of a recent proposal supporting Maritime Union, Senator Mike Duffy, characterized volume purchasing power as one of the concept`s potential advantages in much the same way that big-box stores are able to offer lower prices.
It is likely that neither Canada nor the Maritime region is ready for a merger of political institutions under one umbrella. It is also likely that it would require years of negotiations to secure a bargain among the provinces by which time their respective economies will have declined even further.
But there is another model that provides a better blueprint for what could practically be achieved in the near term. Created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European Economic Community (EEC) was an international organization whose objective was to bring about economic integration, including a common market, among its six founding members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It gained a common set of institutions that promulgated economic and environmental policies. Although these policies carried social implications, the EEC had limited power to change its members` political and cultural institutions.
Under this model, a Maritime Economic Community would have the advantage of being a vehicle to transform economic practices and institutions involving limited political risk. Such an Economic Community would establish the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market of the three provinces, securing open trade of goods, services and people. This is today long overdue. This Economic Community would establish common services and institutions, not by selling them, but by taking them public, with the Maritime Economic Community maintaining control by holding 51 per cent of shares of the institution. Which services, institutions or infrastructure would go public would be decided by a governing council of the three Maritime provinces, perhaps modeled after the current European Council. This governing council would be responsible for the development of policy direction and set out general objectives and priorities. A key objective would be to ensure that the federal government is integrated into the Maritime Economic Community. Some socioeconomic solutions – most notably, a national drug plan or seniors strategy – are best achieved by national initiative.
The details are less important than whether the objectives and goals are desirable from an economic, political and social standpoint. And critically, the transformations involving the Maritime version of an Economic Community are possible to achieve with current political institutions and within today`s constitutional framework.