CANZUK, the freedom of movement and free trade

Posted by Paul Davies on 25/09/20 15:15

In 1962, Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State under President Truman, famously said that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. It’s a famous quote that has often been repeated in the near sixty years since he said it – primarily because, in all that time, Great Britain really hasn’t found a role it’s truly happy with.

The latest manifestation of this seemingly endless search was the vote to ‘Brexit’ - withdraw from the European Union - in June 2016.

One of the main consequences of Brexit is that the UK will no longer be part of the largest free trade area in the world – an area of more than 500 million people. This means there is some urgency for the UK to negotiate a whole series of free trade deals with economic partners around the world – who, up until Brexit, the UK were able to access through EU membership.

This need for deals and alternative spheres of influence, has prompted an organisation called CANZUK to start getting some publicity and traction, particularly among some fervent Brexiteers in the UK and their political allies in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

CANZUK isn’t a new group, nor is it a new idea. It traces its heritage to a group set up in the 1950s called Commonwealth International – primarily to promote business relations within the Commonwealth. Their stated aims have now evolved, and they now seek to promote free trade, the free movement of people, and international cooperation between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Let’s consider all three from our perspective here in Australia.

Free trade

There’s no doubt that, because of the strong ties between here and the UK, there’ll be strong momentum for a free trade agreement. Given that former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is now a member of the UK’s Board of Trade, you’d like to think that such a deal could be signed, sealed, and delivered fairly quickly with the minimum of fuss.

You’d also like to think that Abbott will use his influence to ensure the deal has favourable terms for his home nation.

There seems little point in a wider CANZUK free trade deal, however, because Australia already has trade deals with New Zealand and Canada through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, set up in 2018. So, the onus is surely on the UK to negotiate their own trade agreements, rather than use CANZUK as a potential shortcut.

Freedom of movement

It’s also difficult to see any serious progress towards the CANZUK calls for freedom of movement between the UK and Australia. Our current points-based immigration system has served us well over the years. Its flexibility gives us the ability to target specific groups of people to best fulfil our needs, in terms of skills and experience.

This will go out of the window. Instead, unrestricted freedom of movement will potentially create a situation where it’ll be easier for an unqualified, unskilled Brit, Canadian or Kiwi to emigrate to Australia than a very skilled and qualified German or Japanese engineer.

Ironically, the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has cited our immigration system as the type of model Britain should be looking to copy, yet some of her allies (Patel is an ardent Brexiteer) now seem to be suggesting that we drop part of our system for their benefit!

International cooperation

On the face of it, this would appear to be the least contentious of the three CANZUK aims.

Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have all transitioned effectively from a post-colonial perspective. Relationships between ourselves and the UK are strong, and all three ex-colonies continue to play leading roles within the Commonwealth, and it’s very much the Commonwealth that CANZUK seem to take as their inspiration for unity of purpose.

It’s important to flag up two important caveats, however.

Firstly, the Commonwealth is very much tied to the image and wishes of Her Majesty the Queen. It’s not hard to see it as a vehicle to allow the UK to nostalgically hark back to the days of Empire. The death of Her Majesty, will surely see a big debate over the future of the Commonwealth – either its role or its actual survival.

Additionally, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that our continued status as a monarchy may not survive far beyond her death. The recent decision by Barbados to become a Republic could be a possible precursor to a similar decision here. In these circumstances, therefore, would we really see our future within such an anachronistic organisation?

Secondly, why should we let our own international relations be subsumed by the possible priorities of others - in particular the UK?

For example, we now have a very strong relationship with China, built primarily on trade. This has been one of the key factors in our economic growth since the 2008 crash and is likely to be the key driver to our post-Covid recovery.

Would we be prepared to jeopardise that if, for example, the UK decided to join a US inspired trade war with China if Donald Trump made this the cost of a potential future US/UK trade agreement?

Conclusion

There’s nothing to suggest that relations between Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand shouldn’t remain strong and healthy. However, international relations, especially in the 21st century, should be based on realism and facts, rather than sentimental nostalgia.