Quebec's sovereigntists pretend to want independence.
Until recently, federal politicians pretended to believe them.
But with the Parti Quebecois poised to return to power after the September 4 election, the old pretenses are breaking down -- victims of the global financial crisis and the Euro crisis in particular.
In the past, Quebec sovereigntists had a ready answer to every hard question: look at the European Union. That works, right? As recently as 2009, former Premier Jacques Parizeau published an influential road map (among separatists) to Quebec independence that urged Quebec to retain the Canadian dollar. There's nothing Canada can do to stop us, he told interviewers with a complacent chuckle.
But since 2009, Canadians and Quebeckers have witnessed a harsh seminar on the practicalities of currency union.
An independent Quebec would be crazy to stay on the same currency as the rest of Canada. If it did, it would find itself exactly in the position of Spain and Italy relative to Germany. No, worse than that -- in the position of Argentina relative to the United States during Argentina's brief tragic experiment with "dollarization" in the early 2000s.
The great lesson of the past dozen years of currency experiments is: currency union without fiscal union leads to financial crisis and economic depression.
If Quebec breaks the fiscal union with Canada, it must for its own sake exit the currency union too. Which means that Quebeckers will awake the next day to huge depreciations of their salaries, benefits, and savings.
Quebeckers know that, or intuit it, anyway. The old promises of an easy separatism have been discredited. Separatism is now a hard path, involving great sacrifices, reduced standards of living, more work, and fewer social benefits -- all at a time when PQ supporters yearn to hear a message of no sacrifices, improved standards of living, less work, and more social benefits. Which is precisely why Quebec separatism is effectively dead.
So what is offered instead is an elaborate pretense. PQ leader Pauline Marois has promised to form a committee to work on a project to develop a plan for a new strategy for independence. The committee will begin by studying past studies of Quebec independence, and then -- once the studies are complete -- proceed to propose action plans. A new diplomatic initiative will seek to gain international approval of the independence Quebeckers themselves do not want.
In tough economic times, these studies at least offer make-work jobs for under-utilized economists, sociologists, and party functionaries. But they impose a tough challenge on the rest of Canada: how to keep a straight face through the prolonged hemming and hawing. "Okay, you just let us know when you finish talking to yourselves. Take your time. We'll wait. Four years? Eight? Twenty-seven? Fine. No rush."
Quebec independence is that rare issue that was settled not because it was ever resolved, but because all concerned got bored talking about it.
In that sense, there may even be a certain unintended cunning to PQ leader Pauline Marois' otherwise unfortunate comments and outbursts: they sustain her followers' interest in what even for them must look like the sham it is.