"The siren call of nativism" won't reverse globalisation nor the trend towards greater co-operation between countries, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney has said.
Despite the rise in anti-establishment populism and increasingly fraught East-West relations, Mr Mulroney insisted that greater levels free trade had enhanced prosperity and decreased poverty levels across much of the globe.
In an interview with The Irish Times ahead of an address to the Ireland Canada Business Association in Dublin, Mr Mulroney also blamed the stop-start drama of the European Union's comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) with Canada, which has yet to be ratified by several EU governments, including the Irish one, on Brexit.
The political environment in the lead-up to the Ceta deal was dominated by the UK’s fractious divorce negotiations, he said, and “that probably affected the time available and the judgment of negotiators”.
“People were trying to wrestle with the huge challenge of the British withdrawal from the EU and I think that cast a pall over a lot of the trading relationships that normally would have been enhanced,” said Mr Mulroney, who served as Canadian prime minister between 1984 to 1993.
He was one of the principal architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the 1992 trade pact that eliminated most tariffs and other trade barriers on products and services passing between the US, Canada, and Mexico.
The three countries, he said, accounted for 7 per cent or 500 million of the world’s population but 28 per cent of the world’s wealth, and this was largely down to Nafta. On whether globalisation had caused job losses and depressed wages as some critics maintain, Mr Mulroney said: “I know there are failings but they are correctable and correctable by one thing, leadership”.
He insisted that “multilateralism” had produced overwhelming positive results when compared to the alternatives, particularly in areas of trade and climate change.
Quoting former US president Ronald Reagan, he said "protectionism is destructionism."
Mr Mulroney, who has strong links to Ireland – his mother’s family were from Co Kilkenny while his father’s hails from Co Carlow – also highlighted Ireland’s increased trading links with Canada, noting the Republic exported €2.2 billion worth of goods there in 2020 and had a trade surplus with Canada of €1.7 billion while Canadian companies directly employed more than 15,000 people here.
There are more than 75 Canadian companies operating in Ireland, including big names such as Shopify, VoxPro and Blackstone, while Irish Life, Central Parcs and the National Lottery are owned by Canadian entities.
The stock of Canadian Direct Investment Abroad (CDIA) in Ireland reached almost €9.9 billion in 2020, ranking Ireland as the tenth largest destination of Canadian foreign direct investment .
“Ireland was a prime example of how a small country can trade and prosper” in a liberated trade environment, Mr Mulroney said. Ireland, as an English-speaking, common law country with a highly-skilled workforce, was the perfect gateway to the EU for Canadian business, he said.
Mr Mulroney said the surge in living costs now ranked as the single biggest economic threat. But he said he was confident and optimistic, however, that the clouds over the global economy would clear.