One of the few sources of comfort for the British as many drag their reluctant feet towards Brexit D-Day is the assurance of a warm welcome from their old colonial subjects, the nations of the Commonwealth. However, far from bringing about ‘Empire 2.0’, the recent developments suggest that Brexit could actually catalyse the disunion of the Commonwealth – starting with a long-anticipated ‘Ausexit’.
After it became clear that Brexit would be going ahead regardless of public protests, there was a marked pivot in the focus of British foreign policy from the European Union and towards the Commonwealth.
In her landmark Brexit speech at Lancaster House in January, Prime Minister Theresa May stated, “Many in Britain have always felt that the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union came at the expense of our global ties, and of a bolder embrace of free trade with the wider world.” She emphasised that Brexit was an opportunity to build “a truly Global Britain” – “[a] country that reaches out to old friends and new allies.”
In the same month, two Tory lawmakers in the Free Enterprise Group published a report laying out an ambitious five-phased plan “to rewire and reenergise [UK’s] commitment to the modern Commonwealth network through trade and prosperity”. In February forty-five conservative MPs joined the caucus, urging the British government to “extend the hand of friendship to our Commonwealth partners” in an open letter to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
“The Commonwealth includes five G20 countries, has a combined GDP of $10.4 trillion with annual GDP growth in excess of 4% and offers a ready-made, English language trading network for Britain,” said the letter.
With the spotlight firmly on the Commonwealth as the carrier of Britain’s post-Brexit economic hopes, it is interesting to wonder what would happen when the “ready-made, English language-trading network” begins to unravel.
In July, Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten promised a referendum during the first term of a Labor Government to decide whether Australia should remain in the British monarchy. This comes in the wake of a significant upshot in membership of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) following the Brexit referendum. The chair of ARM, Peter FitzSimons, claims the impact of Brexit on the movement has been “enormous”.
“And about 10 times what I had anticipated. Our membership is suddenly surging once more, and did so from the very moment the vote came in. Social media is crackling with calls for Australia to get on with it,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Although Australia has a rather dismal record with referendums – a referendum for a republic failing in 1999 – ARM claims that for the first time, numbers are on their side. Some figures suggest that the majority of Parliamentarians – up to 81 MPs and 40 Senators – support the republican movement. This echoes public opinion polls in recent years, which have indicated majority support for a republic. As recently as January 2017, a report showed 44% support for a republic from the public, with 30% against.
If the federal election is called in second half of 2018, as seems likely, it means that the republic referendum could be held in late 2019, or early 2020 – contingent on a Labor victory, of course – just in time to gear up for post-Brexit negotiations projected to happen around 2022.
What does this mean for Australia’s relationship with a post-Brexit UK? For everyday Australians, any changes will be gradual, thoroughly debated and scrutinised. Most Australian’s wouldn’t notice any dramatic changes to their lives.
On an international scale, it would be a different story. The symbolic impact of a republican Australia alone would be enormous. Gaining full and complete control of our own affairs will put Australia on equal footing with other sovereign states in a way we have never been before. It would signify the coming-of-age of a nation and the marking of a new milestone in Australia’s young history.
There is no doubt Australia will remain motivated for a mutually profitable trade agreement with the UK. However, when Australia sits down at the negotiating table, it will be as a fully sovereign international partner, unencumbered by imperial sentiment. If Brexit has freed the UK to reach beyond Europe in search of more global ties, ‘Ausexit’ can similarly propel Australia to cross the lines drawn by out-dated loyalty to a foreign power and forge its own path in the new global order.
Se Eun Lee is a penultimate year student of International Relations and Law at the University of New South Wales.