Commentary | 17 June 2016

Why Australians shouldn't thank the British for Brexiting

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Michael Fullilove

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Michael Fullilove

Executive Summary

The federal election is not the only current poll about which Australians are concerned.

Like many of Britain's international partners, Australia has a good deal at stake in the outcome of the referendum on June 23 on whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union.

A new Lowy Institute poll reveals that a majority of Australians oppose a British exit from the EU. In a decisive result, 51 per cent of Australian adults say the UK "should remain a member of the European Union", while only 19 per cent say it should leave.

Why is this the case?

Australia and the UK are like-minded countries that share a rich history. Most of the time we also share a sense of humour.

Once Britain asserted ownership of the whole of the Australian continent. Australians are more modest, believing only that we own the pitch at Lord's.

The Australian diaspora in the UK is large. Many Australian companies have their European base in the UK. Australian foreign correspondents still tend to cover Europe from London, which means that most Australians look at Europe through British eyes.

But if Brits vote to leave the European Union next month, the UK would immediately become a less useful staging-post, and a less interesting vantage-point, for Australians. The bilateral relationship would cool off. It certainly wouldn't heat up.

Some Brexit advocates argue that a decision to leave Europe would create an opportunity for Britain to strengthen its relationships with Commonwealth and Anglospheric countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

This kind of musty thinking is completely wrong.

The days of the world being run from the Travellers Club on Pall Mall and its reciprocal clubs in Washington, Toronto and Melbourne are over.

It is true, of course, that Anglospheric countries have much in common – language, culture and values, democratic traditions, political and legal institutions, an entrepreneurial spirit.

We have similar worldviews. And in the secret world, the Anglosphere is alive and well in the form of the Five Eyes intelligence network. In intelligence, as in life, our most intimate partners are those with whom we share our secrets.

To imagine that the Anglosphere could be an organising principle for British foreign policy, however, is nuts. Frankly, the Anglosphere isn't interested.

The United States, for example, has broad responsibilities as the global hegemon. President Barack Obama has made it clear that Washington opposes Brexit, and in the event of a vote to leave, the UK would be "at the back of the queue" when it comes to trade negotiations.

Australia certainly sees itself as a nation with global interests. Our alliance with the United States remains a key element of our foreign policy.\

We are keen to draw Britain and other European countries into the Asian strategic theatre.

But the relationship with Britain will never be central to Australian foreign policy. It is in Asia that Australia must make its way.

The Anglosphere is only one dimension of the foreign policies of most Anglospheric countries – and not the most significant dimension. The force-field of regionalism is more powerful.

Indeed, the Anglosphere is stronger when English-speaking countries are deeply engaged in their own regions and their regional institutions.

This is one reason why the governments of Australia and other English-speaking countries are backing the "remain" campaign.

The other reason is that the clubby arguments of those proposing to "leave" dangerously misread the historical moment.

Brexit would not strengthen links between Western countries: it would weaken them. Brexit would make for a less liberal Europe and a less united West at a time when the world needs Europe and the West more than ever.

Brexit would leave the United Kingdom weaker, poorer, less influential and less respected. It would do violence to a liberal international order that is already shaky. It would be welcomed by the West's adversaries in Moscow and elsewhere.

The Brits must make their own decisions about their country's future. But no one who votes for the UK to leave Europe should believe that in so doing they will win the gratitude of Australians or others in the Anglosphere.