The people of the United Kingdom had a big decision to make on 23 June. It was entirely their call.
The British people know better than anyone else the costs and benefits of staying or leaving the European Union – and voted accordingly. But those on the Leave side should be forgiven if they have the false impression that staying in the EU is something their allies around the world sincerely desired.
On the contrary many of Great Britain’s friends in the international community will welcome the decision to leave the EU.
Some have argued that the free world, including Australia, benefits from the UK’s continued membership of the EU. They argued the UK is a force for good within the EU, providing a sensible voice which prevents worse decisions from being made.
It is hard to see where this has occurred in recent years, when the EU has lurched from crisis to crisis and many of its member countries appear unwilling to enact the necessary reforms that would boost their economies. Given the Cameron government’s difficulties in renegotiating even the terms of its own membership, it seems unlikely that the UK would have been able to save the EU from itself in the future.
Even if it were true that the EU is better with the UK as a member, it is not clear that the reverse is true. Staying in the EU for our benefit was a high price to ask a friend to pay, given the very real loss of sovereignty, democracy and prosperity the UK has suffered due to its membership.
In reality, the best thing for the EU and its member countries is for the UK to leave and prosper. There could be no more powerful case for much-needed change within the EU than to see one of its former members not just survive but grow outside its restrictive supervision. This will show the countries of Europe that there is a better way, and that the path they are on is doomed to failure.
Britain’s continued membership also had very real costs to its relationships with its friends and allies outside the EU. Countries like Australia stand to gain from a strong and independent UK freed from the EU’s dictates.
There could be no firmer bonds between two nations than Australia and the UK. We are a former colony that shares the same language, head of state, legal and political institutions, geopolitical interests and, most importantly, values. But in spite of this shared heritage, Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom is not as strong as it could be. Sadly, the European Union stands between closer Australia-UK relations.
Despite our distance, the UK is Australia’s seventh largest trading partner and second largest source of foreign direct investment.
But in joining the EU, the UK gave up control over its trade policy. As a result, Australia and the UK have no bilateral free trade agreement. Negotiations towards an EU-Australia free trade agreement, which would include the UK, are scheduled to begin soon. Their successful conclusion would be very welcome and beneficial.
But an EU-Australia free trade agreement and a UK-Australia free trade agreement are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is likely an agreement with the UK, once outside the EU, will be quicker and easier to negotiate, at the very least because Australia would be negotiating with one partner, rather than 28. If Britain were to leave the EU, it should go straight to the front of the queue for a free trade agreement with Australia.
Even though we loyally and reliably fought alongside the UK in two world wars and many other conflicts, Australian citizens are treated significantly less favourably than EU residents for work visas and immigration. Britain’s acquiescence to the EU freedom of movement principles means that one of the few levers left to a UK government seeking to control migration is to severely limit non-EU migration, including Australians.
This approach has resulted in a 50 per cent decline in Australians migrating to the UK between 1999 and 2011, and further falls since then. It effectively prevents the replication of the highly successful New Zealand-Australia Trans-Tasman agreement, which has facilitated unrestricted two-way migration for work, study and tourism since 1973.
An ambitious plan for Commonwealth free movement of people, starting with Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, could begin to make meaningful progress now the UK has voted to leave the EU. Britain’s membership of the EU denies it access to the most culturally compatible, highly-educated workforce in the world.
On security, the UK is already part of the world’s most crucial intelligence-sharing club, the Five Eyes, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Leaving the EU will do nothing to diminish that, or Britain’s other vital security partnerships, including Nato.
Now Britain has voted to leave the EU, it will be welcomed back into the international community outside the EU, particularly by its friends and allies in the Commonwealth.