Britain Outside Europe? The View from Down Under

Could a "more Jakarta and less Geneva" formula also work for London?

23/05/2014 | by Ben Wellings, Annmarie Elijah

Category: European Union, Australia/New Zealand, United Kingdom, Europe

Australia and New Zealand were forced to reorient their spheres of interest and their economies when the UK originally joined the EEC. Following Brexit these three countries could cooperate again on the global stage, especially in Asia. Yet Aussies and Kiwis might have more to gain from having a liberal partner at the European (and transatlantic) trade negotiating table.

Photo © SEBASTIEN PIRLET/Reuters/Corbis

Australia and New Zealand are about as far from Europe as you can get while still remaining on this planet. Nevertheless, both countries’ histories have been closely bound with Britain’s and therefore Europe’s. With regard to their relations with the United Kingdom and the European Union, Australians and New Zealanders might best be described as euroskeptics of the heart but europhiles of the head. These attitudes stem from the history of Britain’s accession to the European Communities, as well as recognition of the importance of contemporary Europe as a trading partner and a potentially "like-minded" political actor. Opinion in both these independent nations ultimately wishes to see the UK remain in the EU. But this wish is primarily a means to see the continuing reforms that both feel are necessary as outside powers seeking access and influence in Brussels, even if expectations about the likelihood of reform remain low. Furthermore these low expectations come at a moment of noticeable reengagement in bilateral relations with the UK and even growth of political support for the so-called "anglosphere."

Australia is a country with a population of 23 million people on a continent large enough to comfortably fit Europe; New Zealand’s population of four million inhabits two main islands about 2000 kilometers from Sydney. Despite the geographical distance and dominant perceptions of immigration from Asia, people-to-people ties between Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Europe remain strong. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in 2011 that 24.6 percent of Australia’s population was born overseas and that 5.3 percent (over 1 million people) of the current Australian population was born in the UK. Thus the United Kingdom still provides the largest single migrant group, although the proportion declined marginally from 5.8 percent in 2001. Furthermore, it was the leading country of birth for the overseas-born population in Australia (20.8 percent), followed by New Zealand (9.1 percent), China (6.0 percent), and India (5.6 percent). The situation was similar in New Zealand, with a quarter of the population born overseas. However, the New Zealand statistics agency found from the 2013 census that migrants from the aggregated region of "Asia" (31.6 percent) had overtaken the UK (26.5 percent) as the largest point of origin for the overseas-born. But it should be noted that EU-born citizens are also well represented amongst Australia’s population. The 2011 Australian census found that more than one-third of the 5.3 million Australian residents born overseas were born in the European Union – some 1.9 million people. Furthermore, an EU passport remains a prized item, with the promise of international mobility for young and professional Australians. It is estimated that around half of the nearly one million Australians living and working abroad are in Europe, with approximately 100,000 of these living in the United Kingdom.

Despite the cultural proximity, the ties between the UK and Australia and New Zealand are not the same as they were 100 or even fifty years ago. Australia and New Zealand are two English-speaking countries sharing close historical, economic, political, and cultural ties, but both are independent sovereign states. They shared military service during World War I and established comprehensive economic cooperation under closer economic relations (akin to the EU’s single market) in 1983.

The date of this economic initiative – negotiated from the late 1970s – is not innocent. Closer economic integration between Australia and New Zealand was linked to the loss of markets suffered when Britain joined the European Communities (EC). Thus debate in Australia and New Zealand about Britain’s involvement in the European Union has been fundamentally shaped by both these countries’ relationship with the United Kingdom and the long process of British accession to the EC. When Britain’s EC application was first announced in 1961 the shock was profound given the heavy – in New Zealand’s case near total – dependence on the UK as a market for primary products, such as minerals, meat, and dairy. When British accession came in 1973 it significantly impacted on exports to the UK from both countries, even noting some transitional arrangements made for New Zealand by Britain and the members of the EC. The loss of markets was most keenly felt in agricultural sectors. When British plans to join the EEC were announced in 1961, it was widely seen as a betrayal, and one with potentially disastrous consequences. "We are facing the greatest economic crisis of our history," the president of New Zealand's Labor Party told The Times in 1962, "wars and depressions not excepted."

Australia and New Zealand – as part of the so-called "Cairns Group" established in 1986 – were integral to a push within the World Trade Organization for the liberalization of European markets and reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP) in particular. The politics of this initiative and the existence of the EC’s external tariff walls defined Australia and New Zealand’s relationships with Brussels for decades. Accordingly, both countries have been supportive of British efforts to speak out against the direction and pace of European integration at certain moments in the history of the EU.

The historic loss of UK markets was somewhat offset by the geopolitical realignment of Australia and New Zealand as regional powers in the Asia-Pacific (or what is now referred to in Canberra as the "Indo-Pacific Rim") and as advocates of free trade. Both Australia and New Zealand were early adopters of neoliberalism and implemented policies of so-called "economic rationalism" with gusto. Like Australia, New Zealand’s attention is increasingly focused northward. New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with China in 2008 and the following year China, having already overtaken the UK in 2003, replaced the US as New Zealand’s second largest trading partner after Australia.

Despite this considerable strategic and economic reorientation in what is now portrayed as "the Asian century," the EU remains an important economic and strategic partner for Australia and New Zealand. According to the European Commission, in 2012 the EU was Australia’s second largest trading partner in goods and services (after China) and third in merchandise (after China and Japan).

Australia boasts strong bilateral diplomatic ties with most EU member states, although public and media awareness of the EU remains low. Until the change of government in 2013, Australian espousal of "middle power" diplomacy (specifically via the G20, the UN Security Council, and the Asia-Europe Meeting) sat well with the EU’s own emphasis on multilateralism. The formal relationship with the EU itself is long-standing (since 1962) and durable despite tensions. In particular, the attempt to sign a treaty-level agreement has been delayed by what one might call furious agreement over common values. The delay arose over Australian objections to the standard human rights clause attached by the European Parliament to all treaties. The Australians felt (perhaps erroneously) that their human rights record spoke for itself, a view that gained some sympathy in New Zealand. Despite this, attention has again shifted back to the trade relationship. Following the announcement in 2014 that the EU would upgrade its diplomatic mission to New Zealand, it also said it would consider a trade agreement with Wellington. Likewise the possibility of an EU-Australia trade deal is under scrutiny in Canberra.

Thus we should not assume, however important relations with the UK are for the Aussies and Kiwis, that everything is determined by history. Some opinion in New Zealand favors the need to find small partners and allies within the EU who might understand the perspective of a small nation negotiating with large neighbors, rather than seeing the United Kingdom as a natural ally. In Australia, awareness exists of the need to understand the EU from a perspective that is not mediated through the British perspective. An Australian trade delegation to Europe in 2013 visited France, Germany, Slovakia, and Austria – all eurozone countries – and did not visit the UK.

Admittedly revising a UK-centric perspective is not always easy. UK-Australia ties run strong and deep. Much reporting of European matters is filtered via UK press and media: Rupert Murdoch was Australian, after all. Recent arrivals from Brussels sometimes complain that public debate about the EU in Sydney or Melbourne could easily be taking place in London. Furthermore, the UK remains a major point of access to the EU. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the UK was Australia’s largest two-way goods and services trading partner within the EU in 2012, accounting for AUD $22.3 billion and ahead of Germany in second place, accounting for AUD $15.7 billion. It was also Australia’s largest export market in Europe (ahead of the Netherlands, Germany, and France) and the second largest import market after Germany. Although no direct comparison is possible, by contrast this compares with total two-way merchandise trade with the eurozone countries of AUD $40.5 billion in 2012. Given the importance of the UK relationship it is sometimes possible to hear complaints that the UK feels it "owns" the relationship with Australia.

Moreover the UK-Australia relationship has been intensifying in the past decade and particularly since the establishment of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. From the mid-1970s there was a somewhat taken-for-granted nature to political relationships between London and Canberra. Although it is true that Australia has become significantly engaged in Asia, UK-Australia bilateral ties have been revived. AUKMIN meetings (an Australia-United Kingdom engagement at the ministerial level) were established in 2006 after Tony Blair’s visit to Australia around the opening of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The meetings were regularized in 2011 and now take place annually. When William Hague became foreign secretary he immediately outlined the UK’s foreign policy priorities to be directed at emerging countries, traditional allies, and the European Union. Noting that the EU did not fall under either the first or second categories, a UK policy of reengagement with Australia was observable as a politics of managing calls for disengagement played out in Britain. Only days before David Cameron gave his speech in January 2013 committing a future Conservative government to renegotiating UK-EU relations and then holding an in-out vote, Hague was in Sydney outlining areas of enhanced cooperation between Britain and Australia as global partners, particularly in Asia.

This comes on top of significant and on-going defense intelligence cooperation between the "five eyes" of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in a context where the US alliance, via the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, enjoys deep support in Australia. However the treaty is a point of strategic difference between Australia and New Zealand since the US suspended its security commitments in 1986 in response to New Zealand’s non-nuclear policies.

Interestingly, euroskepticism can be observed in Australia. It has been correctly pointed out that for the current right-wing government in Canberra, the European Union is a code for bureaucracy, secularism, and especially environmentalism (all of which are bad). When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called for "more Jakarta and less Geneva" in Australian foreign policy, this was not merely another signaling of a shift in Australian priorities but a comment about European political values too. Indeed, were the British-born and Oxford educated Abbott transplanted from Australian to British politics, his natural home would be the euroskeptic right of the Conservative Party.

Such views are not so much linked to the project of British exit from the EU but are related to a wider cultural politics of the right. They are driven in part by a rehabilitation of the British Empire as a force for good in the world stemming not only from American neoconservatism, but from British euroskepticism too. These ideas found their way into Australian politics via right-wing think tanks supportive of the so-called Anglosphere. Such notions find receptive ears at important levels of Australian politics and these ideas of commonality are reflected back at Australia from the UK by figures such as Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan.

Were Britain to exit the EU, there might be some sense of schadenfreude on the right of Australian politics. It might even be seen as an opportunity for the UK to return to a more "natural" political grouping of English-speaking countries, a wider destiny than parochial Europeanism, so to speak. Still such views, however influentially supported, should not be overstated. The vast majority of the Australian government would be disturbed at the thought of a UK exit from the EU. This opinion is held with more conviction among those who regularly deal with the EU within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In submitting to the UK’s "Balance of Competencies" review in 2013, the Australian Foreign Minister stated that "Australia recognizes the UK’s strength and resilience and looks forward to seeing it continue as a leading economy and an effective power. Strong, active membership of the EU," he added, "contributes to this."

So this is where Australia and New Zealand’s interests in Britain staying in truly lie. The EU is of course a key player in WTO negotiations, such as they currently are. It is also deeply involved in an array of bilateral and "megaregional" trade negotiations, not least the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In the absence of multilateral consensus, the extent to which countries commit to liberalization in these deals will impact Australia and New Zealand greatly; both countries rely heavily on exports for economic survival. From an Antipodean perspective, it is hard to see how the UK losing its voice in the EU could advance Australia and New Zealand’s interests.

In summary, Australians and New Zealanders are euroskeptics of the heart and europhiles of the head. The justification of European integration as a means to end interstate conflict in Europe did not have the virtue of being offset by the prospect of greater trade in this part of the world. For Australia and New Zealand UK accession to the EU was initially a net loss and occasioned an economic and strategic reorientation toward Asia and the Pacific. Opinion in Australia and New Zealand remains shaped by these foundational events, even if accommodation after CAP reform allowed for better relations to develop. It is impossible to get away from the notion that Australia and New Zealand’s interests clearly lie in Asia more than Europe. Ironically, by positioning itself as a global as much as a European power, the United Kingdom looks attractive once again as a partner for Australia and New Zealand. Few in this part of the world would want to see Britain leave the EU, but they might enjoy seeing it rattle the cage.

BEN WELLINGS is lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University in Melbourne, currently researching the links between euroskepticism and the “Anglosphere.” He is the author of English Nationalism and Euroskepticism: Losing the Peace (2012).

ANNMARIE ELIJAH is deputy director of the Center for European Studies at the Australian National University (ANU). She has previously worked as a policy officer in the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and has taught politics at the University of Melbourne, Victoria University of Wellington, and ANU.


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