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What might a ‘Brexit’ mean for the Anglosphere – and Australia?

Diplomats and businesspeople in Australia would likely be dismayed if Britain was to leave the European Union. AAP/Alan Porritt

What might a ‘Brexit’ mean for the Anglosphere – and Australia?

Diplomats and businesspeople in Australia would likely be dismayed if Britain was to leave the European Union. AAP/Alan Porritt

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.