Ottawa’s decision to share embassy space and resources with Britain, greeted with condemnation by opposition leaders on Monday, is in fact what some observers call a no-brainer: a logical way to expand Canada’s foreign presence without spending all the taxpayer dollars that go into bricks and mortar.
“This is innovative thinking that will allow us to keep our diplomatic footprint in an age of austerity,” said Colin Robertson, who served as a Canadian diplomat in the U.S. and Hong Kong for 33 years.
The move will see Canada and Britain share space and collaborate on consular services in a “handful of areas” where Canada or Britain does not already have its own mission, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a joint statement with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Mr. Baird said the agreement does not list targeted embassies, but for starters he said Britain will send staff to Canada’s mission in Haiti and the Canadian ambassador to Burma will continue to work out of Britain’s embassy there.
“It is about speed and flexibility, practicality, saving the taxpayer money in both countries, but also being able to operate effectively in a networked world … where we need to be present in more places than ever before,” Mr. Hague said.
Beyond stressing the two countries’ shared values and a mutual desire for a strong presence abroad, Mr. Baird and Mr. Hague said the agreement will also rein in costs. In its March, 2012, budget, the Conservative government promised to save $80-million by restructuring foreign properties and missions as part of a larger plan to find almost $170-million in annual savings.
“Because it’s Britain, everybody has different feelings about [the agreement]; some of us have a soft spot for the old empire and some of us don’t like Britain,” said Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “But at the heart of it is the reality that there are so many cities and countries where Canadians need consular services, and having a Canadian office in every one costs a lot of money. To us, it seems like a sensible step.”
Mr. Robertson called the hybrid approach “smart diplomacy” because Canada cannot advance its foreign policy from the confines of Ottawa — it needs on-the-ground representation wherever Canadian interests are at stake.
“If money is the issue, why wouldn’t we co-locate with Britain?” he said. “It’s like a person moving from a house to a condominium: it doesn’t change your identity … This is a no-brainer.”