Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has been visiting Australia and wrote an opinion piece in the Telegraph about closer union between Australia and the UK. Johnson says “I don’t just mean that we once supplied them with the dregs of the Victorian penal system, or that we have cricket and rugby in common. I mean that we British are more deeply connected with the Australians – culturally and emotionally – than with any other country on earth.” A few lines later he says. “It is time for Britain and Australia to set up a bilateral free labour mobility zone. I suppose there might be some objection from the EU but they should be told firmly to stuff it.“
Coming from a person who is considered to be a Conservative prime minister in waiting, I find these comments very interesting. I expect to here more of these types of comments in the next few years — a lot more.
The UK’s departure from Europe in the next decade looks like a real possibility. The proponents of a UK exit from Europe need to paint a rosy picture of the UK’s alliances in the world after a messy departure from Europe. Painting an optimistic picture of an anglo-sphere bloc of economic and political cooperation between the UK and Australia, NZ, Canada, the US, etc. may be essential to allaying the fears of an isolated post-Europe UK.
The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an in-or-out referendum on Europe in 2017. This last week the UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has come under pressure to support an early referendum. Both parties are responding to the recent surge in popularity of the UK Independence Party, which has as its almost singular goal the exit of the UK from Europe.
As the referendum approaches discussions of what will replace Europe as the main economic and political alliance of the UK will come to the fore. That debate will ignite a debate in the US, Australia and other countries about whether an economic and political alliance or union with the UK is desirable. Mostly it will be about trade and economic union and especially about whether the UK can join the North American Free Trade Agreement. That may give Australia a chance to put its hand up for entry to NAFTA.
But the essence of the European project is not trade, it is political union. The UK will not leave Europe because it is a bad fit economically. It will leave because it is a bad fit politically in a Europe that is headed for ever deeper political union. Because the discussion of the UK exit will be about the bad political fit with Europe a discussion of the political fit with countries in the Anglo-sphere is inevitable. Mostly it will be about economic union, but a discussion of political union will be initiated by the UK’s messy exit from Europe. It is hard to predict what Australia’s reaction to that will be.