Sharing similarities like language, culture, history, democracies, and liberalised economies, could Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK be a rival to the EU in tomorrow’s world? Abi Millar looks at the arguments for and against

On 23 June 2016 – a date that stirs very different emotions in different people – the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This verdict, delivered on the narrowest of margins, would lead to four years of political wrangling before the exit finally came into force.

As of 31 January 2020, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. Standing alone on the world stage, it must begin to negotiate new trading relationships and redraw the map of its allegiances. This, say proponents of the idea, is the perfect time for a new trade alliance that would meld four English-speaking economies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

CANZUK, as the hypothetical bloc is known, was first proposed as early as the 1950s, but has been revived in light of Brexit. It would cover more than 136 million people and, according to neoconservative think-tank The Henry Jackson Society, would spawn ‘the second-most-powerful geopolitical union in the world behind the EU, and quite possibly the fourth-largest economic union behind China’.

Supporters say that CANZUK would boost economic prosperity, while creating new travel and employment opportunities between the four countries. Detractors argue that the idea is unworkable and that the purported links between these far-flung countries aren’t enough. So how tenable is CANZUK really and what are the underpinnings of the idea?

What kind of benefits could it bring?

James Skinner is the chief executive of CANZUK International, a lobby group he founded in 2015 to promote the alliance. Born in the UK, he relocated to Australia and then to his current home of Canada, and knows the challenges of immigration first-hand. He is a passionate advocate for free movement between the CANZUK countries.

“I started off with just a simple online petition, which within the first couple of months had 100,000 signatures,” he says. “So I realised there was a demand for CANZUK and the benefits it provides. I started lobbying the government and doing advocacy work on social media and in person at universities. And it’s just snowballed since then.”

As Skinner explains, the idea of CANZUK revolves around three initiatives. First, reciprocal migration between the four countries. Anybody living within the bloc would be able to freely live and work elsewhere in the bloc – building on the existing Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement between Australia and New Zealand, and paralleling the free movement Britons once enjoyed within the EU.

“This is appealing to people who wanted to remain in the EU, because they still have the travelling work opportunities that they would have had anyway, but just with different countries,” says Skinner.

The second objective would be free trade. This would entail removing tariffs and other barriers to commerce, as well as introducing initiatives like mutual skills recognition.

“If you’re a plumber or electrician or architect from the UK, you could come to work in Canada, Australia or New Zealand,” says Skinner. “Instead of having to go back to an educational institution to recertify your credentials, your existing qualifications would be recognised in those countries. You could work the very next day in a profession that you chose.”

The third pillar of the plan is greater foreign policy cooperation. While the CANZUK countries already have strong ties in this regard – notably via the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, a military intelligence sharing agreement with the US – Skinner thinks those links could be strengthened.

“CANZUK is an endless pool of ideas that people could choose from, with the three main ones obviously being reciprocal migration, trade, and foreign policy,” he says. “It’s incredibly beneficial for everybody involved – not just employers and businesses, but also your average citizen like me.”

The Brexit vote, he feels, came as a major boost to the campaign, adding credence to an idea that would have been essentially impossible while the UK was part of the EU.

“People saw that we don’t really have a future with the EU or certainly not the type of relationship that have had for the better part of 50 years,” recalls Skinner. “They started to ask what else is out there, especially with the government advocating for being a more global Britain.”

CANZUK

Have a population of

129 million people

Rank #3

in global GDP (US$6.26trillion)

Have a Per Capita GDP of

US$47,225

Have an inflation rate of

0.97%

Have an unemployment rate (of total population) of

6.0%

Rank #3

in global defence spending (US$104billion)

Rank #5

in overall Quality of Life indices

Source: CIA World Factbook

CANADA

NEW ZEALAND

CANZUK is an endless pool of ideas that people could choose from

Reviving the Anglosphere?

While the idea has amassed strong support in some quarters, CANZUK has also come under flak for what some see as its imperialist undertones. It hasn’t escaped critics’ attention that Canada, Australia and New Zealand once formed part of what empire builders called ‘the white dominions’.

The idea of reviving the ‘Anglosphere’ – an idea with an uncomfortable historical precedent – won’t sit well with everyone. And certainly there are questions to be asked about why these four countries have been picked, as opposed to say, Jamaica or Singapore. (CANZUK supporters, for their part, tend to strongly resist any insinuations that they want to revive an old world order.)

“CANZUK debates go back to the late 19th century,” points out the political scientist Srdjan Vucetic, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “Ever since the British voted to leave the EU, a small group of conservatives in the UK and elsewhere – not all of whom are upper-case Conservatives – has been trumpeting mutually beneficial ‘growth potential’ in relations between these four states. Brexit has given them a license to be bold and think big. ‘Who needs Europe, when Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders both like us and are so much like us?’ the argument goes.”

The likeness between the four, say CANZUK supporters, almost goes without saying. They point to the fact these countries speak the same majority language; have similar legal systems; have low unemployment rates and high GDP; are connected through the Commonwealth; and share the same respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. They share common cultural reference points and in many ways resemble old friends.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find four other countries in the world that are so closely aligned,” says Skinner. “The truth is, you could take your average person in the United Kingdom and land them in the middle of Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, and they would still feel at home. We’re close allies on the international stage, and we’ve worked together through thick and thin, for many, many years.”

Vucetic, however, sounds a note of scepticism about these apparent ‘familial ties’.

“CANZUK advocates have come up with criteria of affinity that include everything from the English language to common law to evidence of public opinion support for various CANZUK deals,” he says. “These commonalities are real but also overstated. For one, the part of Canada where I live happens to use French and civil law.”

He believes other members of the Commonwealth should weigh in on CANZUK, since the two projects are effectively working at cross-purposes.

“After all, the UK has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not the Foreign, Commonwealth & CANZUK Office,” he says.

The geographic challenge

The other main challenge to the CANZUK argument is a simple matter of geography. Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the CANZUK countries are separated by thousands of miles. The UK and New Zealand, for instance, are 11,426 miles apart, making the idea of dramatically scaled-up trade links a non-starter.

“The idea’s historical background is not troubling for everyone – it really depends on one’s politics,” says Vucetic. “But the key flaw is that geographic distance no longer matters for trade or human mobility.”

Currently, the UK’s primary trading partner is Europe, with nearly half its exports going to EU-27 countries, according to 2018 figures from the World Bank. Australia and New Zealand are Asia-Pacific economies, with the APAC region accounting for more than three-quarters of Australian exports, while three-quarters of Canada’s exports go to the United States.

Just 2.94% of the UK’s exports go to CANZUK countries, along with 4.83% of Australia’s and 3.24% of Canada’s. Although the figure for New Zealand is higher, at 19.87%, that is mostly due to its existing trade agreement with Australia. Whatever the geopolitical arguments for CANZUK, these figures suggest that proximity is the single most important factor when it comes to deciding whom to trade with.

Skinner, however, is optimistic that geographic distance is “nothing that can’t be overcome”. He points to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal as an example of the ways the world is getting smaller. The agreement includes Canada, Australia, and New Zealand along with eight other countries in the Pacific region. If the UK is successful in its application to the CPTPP (despite not being in the Pacific region) this could be a precursor to CANZUK.

“If we were talking about 1950s or 60s, I would see an issue, but we’re in 2021 and modern technology and transportation means it’s really not an issue anymore,” says Skinner. “The CPTPP agreement includes countries from all over the world, and the geographical distance between these countries doesn’t really make a difference.”

Support for the idea

Although CANZUK may sound far-fetched to some, polls have shown significant public support for the idea. In one online poll, conducted by CANZUK International for the rightwing Daily Express, 94% of respondents said ‘yes’ to the question: ‘should the UK form a superpower alliance with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand?’.

More scientifically, a 2016 YouGov survey found that 70% of Australians, 75% of Canadians, 82% of New Zealanders, and 58% of Britons support free movement within the four nations.

Whether politicians would vote for CANZUK might depend on what they were being asked to vote for. As critics have argued, it isn’t always clear what CANZUK actually means – is it a ‘superpower alliance’ or is it just a loose grouping of four separate governments?

“Advocates are not pushing for the same thing,” points out Vucetic. “Different people and organisations have put out different proposals. Other proposals are still forthcoming – Canadian Conservatives’ CANZUK policy paper, for example. We can’t speak of a CANZUK trade alliance until we have more than bullet points.”

A recent survey showed that most UK politicians (94%) support the free movement of goods within the CANZUK countries, while 61% support the free movement of people. Far fewer (19% of Labour MPs and 16% of Tory MPs) back a political union between the CANZUK countries – which CANZUK International says falls in line with its own policy.

It will fall to CANZUK supporters, then, to really nail down the details of what they’re fighting for. Skinner is hoping to see more talks between the four respective parliaments, formulating joint strategies on how CANZUK can be advanced and presented to Cabinet ministers. He is also keen to frame CANZUK as a concept that transcends the usual left-right divide, amassing cross-party support in all four nations.

That said, it remains true that, for now, much of the pro-CANZUK rhetoric stems from Eurosceptic and Conservative sources.

“If we end up with Conservative or Conservative-led governments in all four countries at once, we may well see one or more CANZUK deals materialise. In most other scenarios, I don’t see it advancing very far,” says Vucetic.

AUSTRALIA

UNITED KINGDOM

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