What Might A ‘Brexit’ Mean For Australia?

What Might A ‘Brexit’ Mean For Australia?

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom will vote in a referendum on whether or not to withdrawal from the European Union — a scenario popularly known as the “Brexit”. While these happenings are half a world away, the outcome could have political ramifications around the globe — including Australia. Monash University’s Ben Wellings investigates.

Brexit image from Shutterstock

Eurosceptics in Britain face one pressing question as the in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union looms: what alternative to the EU do they propose?

The Remain campaign has British Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiated relationship with Europe to offer. The Leave campaign has offered up various small European countries as models for Britain: Norway, Switzerland, even Iceland.

None of these sound sufficiently grand for English expectations. But the “outers” do have the “Anglosphere” up their sleeve. This makes opinions in Anglophone countries like Australia on a British exit from the EU unusually important in the referendum campaign.

Australia and the Anglosphere

Despite its distance from Europe, Euroscepticism can be observed in Australia. For successive right-wing governments in Canberra, the EU is code for protectionism, bureaucracy, secularism and environmentalism – all of which are bad.

When former prime minister Tony Abbott called for “more Jakarta, less Geneva” in Australian foreign policy this was not merely another signalling of a shift in Australian priorities, but a comment about European political values too.

Such views were not directly linked to the “Brexit” project. They were related to a wider cultural politics of the Right that can also be found among British (or English) Eurosceptics.

In Australia, these arguments were driven by a rehabilitation of the British Empire as having been a force for good in the world, as a counter to the delegitimising versions of history brought up by the memory of settler-Indigenous relations.

This is the wellspring of Australian Anglosphere ideology. British politicians Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson actively reflect these ideas of commonality back at Australia. Johnson was even made Honorary Australian of the Year in 2014 for his assistance to Australians in London.

Australia, it is suggested, is preparing for the “Asian century”. But despite the geographical distance and dominant perceptions of immigration from Asia, people-to-people ties between Australia and the UK remain strong.

More than one million members of the current Australian population were born in the UK, the leading country of birth for Australia’s overseas-born population. Conversely, approximately 100,000 Australians live in the UK.

Sporting rivalries in netball, rugby and – above all – cricket breathe life into this long-term relationship.

What a Brexit might mean

The bad news for the “outers” is that the Anglosphere’s supporters are no longer in the ascendancy in Australia.

Across the English-speaking world, 2015 was a bad year for Anglosphere enthusiasts. Abbott and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, lost power in the space of a few months. Abbott was overthrown as prime minister from within his own party by the more emollient Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott was a known Anglophile. He courted public ridicule when he announced a return to Australian knighthoods and then handed one to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. This showed that aligning yourself too closely with a certain idea of Britain is not a vote-winner in Australia.

Despite the cultural proximity, the ties between the UK and Australia are not the same as they were 40 years ago. When Britain’s application to the European Economic Community was first announced in 1961 the shock was profound given the heavy dependence on the UK as a market for primary products, such as minerals, meat and dairy.

The Left never really forgot the UK’s role in getting Australia involved in battles at Gallipoli and Singapore, however.

Under John Howard, the Right of Australian politics rehabilitated the memory of Britain as a force for global good in a way similar to Anglosphere enthusiasts among English Eurosceptics.

Bad relations with the emergent European Community after 1973 – principally over the Common Agricultural Policy – meant that Australia-UK-EU relations got stuck in a rut until Labor started courting the EU after 2007.

Today, the vast majority of the Australian government would be disturbed at the thought of a UK exit from the EU. This view is held with more conviction among those who regularly deal with the EU within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In a submission to the UK’s balance of competences review in 2013, Australia’s then-foreign minister, Bob Carr, said:

Australia recognises 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 contributes to this.

This revival of the Anglosphere has been dismissed with some force in Australia as “an illusion”. Perhaps the greatest threat a Brexit poses to Australia is the potential disruption to a relationship with the EU that at last appears to be on a decent footing. Australia’s recently announced free trade negotiations with the EU have been a long time coming.

Were Britain to exit the EU, there might be some sense of schadenfreude on the Right of Australian politics. But the dismay among diplomats and businesspeople would be heard from Canberra to Kakadu.

Ben Wellings, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • Hi Ben
    Where was and is this British Empire? It was the British-Indian Empire 19th and 20th Centuries. Now it is the Indian Empire. Indian MPs want to Remain and the few who wanted to leave are joining the Indians who want to remain. According to them the Indian block vote will decide the final outcome; that is to remain.
    Enjoy a Chicken Tikka instead of a Bratwurst; remain or Leave Anglos are Kaput.

  • If you believe that exiting the Eu is bad, your either blind or dumb. The EU is a centralized lawmaking system. If I told you, that instead of you making your own choices in life, you had to consult me with everything you did, and I get ultimate rule. That would be a perfect summary of what the EU is. It strips the UK of it’s own laws. And the more you go down that track, the more freedom they take from not just England, Scotland or Ireland… But they dictate to France, Germany, Sweden, everyone… The EU only benefits the multinational corporations, anyone who has lots of money invested… Like George Sorros. A vote to stay in, doesn’t serve the people of the UK, it serves financial interests. Which is why Cameron wants you to stay in, and so does all the big investment firms, and Obama and his corporate interests. But tell me one thing, which economist predicted the GFC? They are all just guessing, because they are afraid they might lose money in the process. The reality is, that Britain has done trade for a couple of thousand of years. And some corporate crony is going to stand up and say that ‘they can’t do it?’. What a load of hogwash! The only people who fear the Brexit are those with thousands of dollars in their bank accounts or those who own multinational companies. That’s what it is really about! And they are all bullshit artists anyway serving their own interests.

  • I really hope there is a Brexit, a Greexit, a Italexit, a Frexit, a Swexit etc. Put the people first, not the corporations… Europe made peace 50 years ago. It’s 2016…

  • News flash! – ‘Goldmann Sachs predicts that Brexit will be a failure…’. Derp!

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