John McNee, Canadian ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg and York alumnus (BA ’73, Glendon), was warmly welcomed back to his old school, when he came to outline his views on the future of the European Union and Canada’s relationship with it.
Right: Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts (left) with John McNee
Speaking to an audience of students at Glendon on Nov. 3, McNee was quick to point out that the European Union – a unique creation in international relations and a huge success on both the political and economic fronts – is currently facing an important crossroads as a result of rapid globalization and the aging populations of its member countries. “No one disputes the great transformation that the EU has brought about since the Second World War resulting in an unprecedented 50 years of peace for Europe and the promise of continued peace,” said McNee. The Union has also been able to influence other countries to be peaceful and democratic in order to be eligible to join. With the recent addition of 10 more states, almost all of Europe is united and free.
While McNee outlined the benefits of joining the EU – the promise of great economic wealth and growth – he also commented on the differing visions among the participants. “The defeat of the proposed constitution for the Union last summer did not result from its content. In referenda, the answers frequently pertain to other underlying questions,” said McNee. He pointed to French dissatisfaction with their current government and anti-immigrant feelings as the possible roots of their voting non. Similarly, fears of the disintegration of traditional society may have been a key factor in the Netherlands’ negative reaction to the proposal, he said. While nationalism and the old fears resulted in their voting down the constitution, McNee said the process did bring an important benefit in the rise of a serious discussion about the EU’s future.
Globalization and aging populations are the challenges of most industrialized countries and different countries approach these problems in different ways. McNee said Canada has great advantages in being a country built on immigration which welcomes the diversity and change it brings. “EU member countries observe the Canadian example with interest,” he said. “Canada’s current situation is a very favourable one, with the national debt contained, the rate of inflation and unemployment low and the median age of the population kept younger by absorbing immigrants into its society,” said McNee.
“Canada’s deepest relationship, other than with the US, is with Europe virtually in every area of policy,” he added. McNee expressed optimism about the possibility of expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement to include the European Union, which he considers a natural partner with shared values and a similar approach to collaboration. This partnership would be an enormous advantage with respect to world-wide events such as epidemics, natural disasters and defence moves, he said.
The student audience questioned McNee on issues such as Canada’s contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, how Canada serves as a model for the EU on immigration policies, whether the EU should open its doors to more members in the near future and the role of present-day Russia in Europe. In response to a question about the life of a career diplomat, McNee replied that all the moves and changes were hard for diplomatic families but the opportunity to learn and experience things made it challenging and worthwhile for all concerned. Finally, he thanked Glendon once again for inviting him and expressed his delight at being back after so many years of absence.
About John McNee
John McNee studied history at Glendon (BA ’73) and Cambridge University (MA ’75), where he was a Canada Scholar. He joined the Department of External Affairs in 1978 and served in Madrid, London, Tel Aviv, Damascus and Beirut. At Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, he served in the Policy Development Secretariat and in the Canada-United States Transboundary Division, and held posts as director of the Personnel Division and the General, Middle East, North Africa and Gulf States bureaus. McNee also served on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Task Force on International Peace and Security and in the Privy Council Office. Before taking up his posting in Luxembourg and Belgium in 2004, he was assistant deputy minister, Africa and Middle East, in Ottawa for Foreign Affairs Canada.
This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer, Marika Kemeny.