An interesting thing has happened to our cousins in the north – the prospect of Britain leaving the EU has moved from the unthinkable to the thinkable. The British policy-making elite has long considered the topic as beyond polite conversation, but the complacency of yesteryear has been replaced by bafflement, fear and full-blown panic at the realisation that le grand projet may be crumbling underfoot.
Support for Ukip has surged since David Cameron promised an in/out referendum by 2018. The latest YouGov poll indicates 43% of Britons favour exit versus 37% who wish to remain. Polls bounce around but all show a base vote for exit that indicates an uncertain outcome.
The Conservative Party’s position is critical to the ultimate result, and while this continues to be support for ongoing EU membership, each month seems to bring new developments – such as Tory defections to Ukip, Ukip by-election successes, and acrimonious debates over tax and immigration rules – that make such a momentous change more conceivable.
Up until now the policy-making elite in Britain haven’t given much thought to the actuality of a ‘Brexit’ because to prepare for that eventuality might be seen as encouraging it; but here is where it starts to get interesting for Australia.
‘Who will be our friends if we leave the EU?’ is a question which has found eurosceptics scrambling to give a satisfactory answer, but some serious thinking is starting to go into what a post-Brexit landscape might look like. Some, like Daniel Hannan, would like to build greater institutional linkages amongst the Anglosphere – but with countries such as the US and India included in his definition this quickly becomes complex. Many mention re-energising the Commonwealth, but the breadth and diversity of 53 countries quickly adds difficulties. Practically all suggestions include upgraded relations with Old Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The point is every one of these discussions envisages a greater degree of engagement with Australia, often featuring us as Exhibit A.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson, on track to re-enter the House of Commons at the next election, is one of those EU critics who says Australia should be the first country Britain should deepen ties with. ‘We need to raise our eyes beyond Europe, forging and intensifying links with countries that are going to be growing in the decades ahead – countries that offer immense opportunities for British goods, people, services and capital. And you could not do better than by starting with Australia,’ says Johnson. On the agenda, he says, should be ‘bilateral mobility zones’ and, if Britain leaves the EU, a new trade agreement with Australia and other countries.
‘We British are more deeply connected with Australians – culturally and emotionally – than with any other country on Earth,’ Boris says bluntly. ‘We speak of our French neighbours and our American cousins, but the relationship with Australians is stronger still,’ says the Times. ‘Migration, sporting ties, military co-operation, cultural similarity and a shared monarch are only the skin-deep details of something that goes to the bone.’
We are being wooed by the London Mayor with a significant offer, and it’s likely this manner of proposition will only grow the greater the disenchantment with the EU becomes. The simple fact is that if Britain does leave the EU it will be looking to bolster friendships with other countries around the world, and we should be prepared to capitalise on the potential for increased visitation, migration, study and work rights, trade opportunities like a free trade deal, and new opportunities for co-operation in areas of mutual interest.
Any step up in the relationship would have its critics in Australia of course, most notably those driving further enmeshment with Asia, but an enhanced inter-hemispherical arrangement is potentially an asset whose worth is yet to be realised. Having prime global real estate in north and south offers natural and unique complementarities. If our two countries have the chance to offer our citizens expanded opportunities then we would be foolish not to at least examine it.
Australians of a certain age may well be casting a wry smile over the renewed British interest in Australia, noting the extraordinary impacts on this country when Britain began its process of joining the then-European Economic Community in 1961. Many at the time considered this as nothing less than a betrayal of family: the ‘abandonment of Australia’ said the Australian Financial Review. When Britain decided in 1962, as part of EEC negotiations, to give Australians lesser entry and work rights than Continental citizens the hurt reaction in Australia was compounded. ‘We are, or thought we were, the same people – simply the British overseas. Now, it seems, we are not,’ sulked the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘The burning desire of Mother to leave us to our own affairs was a shock,’ said the Australian in its first ever editorial in 1964. ‘It was a salutary shock. For it helped to make us understand that now, as never before in our short history, we stand alone.’ When they finally did join the EU in 1973 the Australian noted: ‘Britain is in Europe and the sun is still shining.’ Time has moved on, and Australians are now fully confident and comfortable with our strong, independent place in the world.
Clearly Mother is having second thoughts about her relationship with the Continent – dalliance or alliance? – and is starting to seriously assess her options in the event of a Brexit. Cameron has shifted from a position two years ago where he refused to countenance leaving the EU to last week repeatedly refusing to answer the question. When he addresses parliament this week, lunches at the Australian War Memorial and visits Brisbane for the G20 he will find himself at ease and warmly welcomed by good friends. Who knows but that he might find that life outside the EU presents opportunities?
David Alexander is MD (Federal) of Barton Deakin Government Relations.