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Opinion Why Stéphane Dion should not be our ambassador to EU and Germany

Andrew Cohen, a Canadian journalist, author and professor, is a Fulbright Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

Stéphane Dion is a patriot. In almost 21 feverish years in national politics, he was courageous, principled and loudly, artlessly frank in defence of Canada. Let us remember that.

After the country came close to fracturing in 1995, he went to Parliament, rallied the federalists and championed the Clarity Act. "Vendu," they sniffed of the rumpled professor from Université de Montréal. He shrugged and kept talking.

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Later, Mr. Dion was a weak leader of the Liberal Party and most recently a weak foreign minister. He was cranky, contradictory and ornery, clashing frequently with cabinet colleagues (one of whom he scolded for speaking too little French.) He is an intellectual, innocent of political instinct, as if tutored by Michael Ignatieff.

But that's not the big reason Mr. Dion should not be Canada's Ambassador to Germany and the European Union. The problem is less the man than the office – an odd, sticky, half-baked confection more about politics than policy.

This appointment is a folly on every level. It will offend the Germans, dilute Canada's representation in Berlin and Brussels and alienate our better-qualified diplomats in Ottawa. In Donald Trump's world, we need a professional, not a dilettante.

But the Prime Minister had a personnel problem. Having decided that Mr. Dion would not play well with Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State, Justin Trudeau abruptly dropped him from cabinet last month.

That left Mr. Dion facing a return to teaching. Perhaps Mr. Trudeau felt guilty about his éminence grise. Fortunately, the magnanimous federal government offers many exciting careers. Mr. Dion could have become ambassador to France, like Lawrence Cannon, Stephen Harper's foreign minister. Or chairman of Canada Post, like André Ouellet, Jean Chrétien's foreign minister.

Or, Mr. Trudeau could have simply moved Mr. Dion to another portfolio. (Mr. Dion told me in 2015 that foreign affairs was not his choice, but didn't say what was.) Obviously, Mr. Trudeau wanted him out.

So he conjured up a super-ambassadorship to Berlin and Brussels, a mix of Bratwurst and Boudin Blanc. Senior mandarins at Global Affairs Canada went along. Many come from other departments having never served abroad and lacking a practical understanding of the nature and value of diplomacy.

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It's a good bet the Europeans were surprised to learn all this in the terse announcement from the PMO "proposing" Mr. Dion's appointment. This suggests Ottawa does not yet have agrément from either party; if that is the case, the premature announcement is a breach of diplomatic politesse.

The Germans are a formal, decorous people surely dismayed that Canada is sending a civil but discredited partisan to a newly diminished post. Germany is the most powerful and influential country in Europe; it's why we built a dazzling embassy in central Berlin, as well as an official residence as showplace. We have always sent our best representatives, including Charles Ritchie, Klaus Goldschlag, Paul Heinbecker, Marie Bernard-Meunier, Peter Boehm. All were seasoned professionals who spoke German.

The Germans send us their best, too. Their envoys are polished, authoritative and fluent in both of Canada's official languages.

The relationship has always been large and complex, demanding a full-time ambassador. In 2017, as Britain prepares to leave the EU, Russia threatens Ukraine and the Baltics, and Mr. Trump savages Germany's open immigration, Angela Merkel is fighting for re-election.

Chancellor Merkel is the heroine of Europe. More than ever, she needs Canada's help. Our reply is a mercurial professor who does not speak German, who has no temperament for diplomacy, and who will not live full time in Berlin.

For Ottawa, it may be that a prominent appointment underscores the new strategic importance of Europe to Canada. It may be that Mr. Dion has the ear of the Prime Minister, which would enhance his stature in any capital. It may also be that Mr. Dion will not report to his successor as minister, like ordinary ambassadors, which would be frustrating for a proud man and former colleague.

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Oh, the job will have its charms, despite the commute of 763 kilometres between offices. The food is divine in Brussels, the music is heavenly in Berlin, and for Ambassador Dion, the Autobahn is preferable to that well-travelled road back to Montreal.

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