Foreign ministers downplay shared Canada-U.K. embassies

Foreign ministers for Canada and the U.K. downplayed an agreement to share space in embassies around the world, amid criticism from opposition MPs in Ottawa on Monday.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague was in Ottawa to announce an agreement between the two countries that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says will start with embassies in Haiti and Burma, and will allow civil servants to consider doing so in more countries as the need arises.

"We are not moving to merge all of our embassies and consulates around the world. We are not going to be sharing ambassadors or trade commissioners," Baird said.

"Each country will continue to have complete independence on policy and Canadian public servants will always protect and promote Canada's interests and Canada's values. In select locations, this simply allows Canadian diplomats to do their good work faster and at a lower cost to Canadian taxpayers."

Hague said the two countries were expanding on an agreement announced last fall when British Prime Minister David Cameron was in Ottawa.

"We are two countries with large diplomatic networks ... but we can't be everywhere," Hague said.

"This looks to increase our co-operation to maximize our reach and impact on how two vibrant foreign ministries with common goals in many respects can work together — common values, shared values ... It is about speed and flexibility, practicality, saving the taxpayer money in both countries."

'Sound practical sense'

Hague said the agreement doesn't change the two countries' independence from each other.

"It just makes sound practical sense," he said.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said it was confusing that the government argued the plan was an innovative approach to foreign affairs and announced it with much fanfare, but then said it's more about sharing administrative services.

In question period, Baird referred to the agreement as "small" and "administrative." The arrangement, he said, will allow a British diplomat to have an office at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti, where Britain now has no presence. At the same time, Canada can send a foreign service officer to Burma to work out of the British Embassy until the Canadian mission is established. Those are the only two countries included so far in the agreement.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused the government of being unable to represent Canada abroad.

"If the Conservatives won't stand up for Canada in the world, why do they expect that the British will do it for us?" he said.

"It's all very nice to be nostalgic for the great British empire, but there are limits."

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper for avoiding the UN General Assembly this week.

"If we have such a wonderful independent foreign policy, why isn't the prime minister of Canada discussing that foreign policy in front of the United Nations this week like so many heads of state?" he said.

The NDP also raised the issue of French-language services and whether they would be available to francophones through the British missions.

Agreement includes crisis response, security

The British press broke the news yesterday that Canada and the U.K. would be announcing they will co-ordinate some embassies to share administrative costs.

"The U.K. and Canada have signed an agreement on closer working that will provide a framework for our missions overseas to co-operate more closely, sharing admin costs for example, where appropriate to promote U.K. and Canadian interests. This declaration sets out a number of areas to further co-operation, including co-location, crisis response, security and consular co-operation," the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement to CBC News.

"This is part of the government’s drive to deepen our relationships and improve our engagement with a number of Commonwealth allies across the full spectrum of foreign policy issues."

There is speculation in the U.K. that the agreement is meant to compete with efforts by the EU to co-ordinate its own diplomatic work. Hague denied that.

"Obviously we work very closely with other European foreign services ... and there are places where we sometimes share a compound with some of the other foreign ministries of the European Union," he said.

"It's not a zero sum world. And finding practical ways to co-operate successfully with other nations doesn't in any way diminish our relations within the European Union."

Hague's visit marks the first bilateral visit to Canada by a foreign secretary since 1996, he said this morning on Twitter.

Hague kicked off the visit with a meeting with Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, he wrote on Twitter.

This won't be Canada's first foray into sharing services. Canada and Australia have worked together in 26 locations around the world for years.

Since Canada has pulled its diplomats out of Iran, Italy has offered to handle consular matters in Tehran.

With files from James Cudmore