CANZUK: British Empire 2.0?
With Brexit finally done, the UK is searching for its new role in the world. This is not a new situation for the UK, as it found itself in a similar position when its Empire collapsed in the mid-20th century. Boris and the Brexiteers have drummed on about a “Global Britain“ being able to decide its own future and its own trade deals, but where and with whom those deals will be struck remains uncertain.
This article will be taking a look at CANZUK, a project that has been gaining momentum since the 2016 Brexit vote. Framed by its supporters as a union of similar English-speaking nations, the concept has gained some criticism owing to its links to the British Empire and its former white Dominions.
So what is CANZUK? Its a diplomatic alliance between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, with the aim of achieving free movement, free trade and foreign policy cooperation. While it has received political support in each country to various degrees, it has been criticised as promoting prosperity and opportunity for predominately white people. The project overlooks countries with a similar background (ex-colonies, Commonwealth states) such as Jamaica, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Without doubt, increased trade, travel and foreign policy cooperation is something to be looked at positively and will grant greater opportunities for all. So, if the areas CANZUK will cooperate are positive the question becomes why just limit it to just these four countries? Could other members of the Commonwealth join such as India?
If we take a look at Brexiteers’ issues with the EU, one of the major issues concerned immigration. The argument was made that free movement between countries with very different social and economic development levels can lead to large scale migration of skilled labourers, otherwise known as ‘brain drain’. So when we look at it from the perspective of countries wishing to join the organisation, the possibility of a greater standard of living abroad for their citizens may have serious economic consequences. On the other hand, mass immigration can lead to social conflict and political instability, a topic exploited by populist parties across the world.
The four CANZUK countries have a similar GDP per capita, as well as stable populations and relatively low rates of unemployment. CANZUK supporters argue that emigration between the constituent members would therefore be manageable and sustainable.
In the first half of the 20th century trade between the CANZUK nations was intertwined, but the same cannot be said the same today. The UK’s decision to join the EU meant that trade with the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth nations struck their own independent trading culture. The EU currently accounts for 47% of the UK’s total trade. Canada, Australia and New Zealand together account for roughly 3.5% of UK trade. The distance between countries is an important factor as it makes trade more expensive. The trade benefits of CANZUK therefore appear to be minimal.
The last pillar of the agreement we will discuss is foreign policy. The proposed organisation has also advocated foreign policy cooperation between the CANZUK countries due to their similar cultural and historical ties, as well as their modern global alliances. The four countries will be building on Five Eyes, which all four are members of. Canada, Australia, and Britain are all facing in recent foreign policy crises.
Canada’s failure to make it onto the United Nations Security Council reflects it’s decline in the world. Australia is faced with cyber-attacks and growing Chinese pressure on exports, something that has severely effected Australia’s economy. Britain, now outside the European Union, has been in confrontation and repeatedly threatened by China over Hong Kong and Huawei. These countries are struggling to make their voices heard in international politics independently of the United States.
Britain has already taken steps towards deepening economic ties with the other members of CANZUK through its application to join the CPTPP. If the UK was to join the new trading block, apart from being able to negotiate from a position of strength against China or the United States for example, it would facilitate in integrating its trade linkages with Australia, Canada and New Zealand. For Example, membership of the CPTPP would allow the UK to avoid heavy restrictions on investment into Canada. This would facilitate trade linkages and economic integration and thereby make the CANZUK reality one step closer. This could also be supplemented by increased geo-strategic cooperation.
One thing that would make the process easier and more likely is the fact all share the same language, common law and the same Head of State. To this end however, CANZUK is not a new idea. It has its roots in the British ‘settler’ Empire of the 19th century. Imperial federations were discussed then, and faced similar backlash for favouring the ‘white’ territories while ignoring the full extent of the Empire.
Although, CANZUK is both new and old, the historical connection helps to explain the idea’s magnetic appeal to some and its outright rejection by others. In particular, it explains why so many critics see CANZUK as a problematic reincarnation of the old “white” colonial world. CANZUK supporters are quick to argue that their project has a very different foundation. Although the imperial origins of the idea do not determine its meaning today, they do condition it, shaping the reception of CANZUK projects today.