13 Feb

'Britain, Australia should forge post-Brexit free-movement pact: Boris Johnson' by Hans Van Leeuwen, AFR

London | Leading Brexit rebel Boris Johnson has renewed his call for a trans-Tasman-style free-movement area between Britain and Australia after Brexit, following the launch of a report calling for Prime Minister Theresa May's government to make relations with Australia a top priority after leaving the European Union.

The report, authored by Conservative MP and foreign-policy specialist Bob Seely and researchers at the Henry Jackson Society, by reputation a neoliberal think tank, said Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (CANZUK) represented "a natural alliance to be deepened and developed".

Citing a 2018 poll, the report said that between 62 and 82 per cent of citizens from the CANZUK nations are in favour of a "common travel area" between the four countries that might replicate the existing arrangements between Australia and New Zealand.

The report said Britain should also aspire for a free-trade area that emulated the closeness of the trans-Tasman relationship.

Other proposals included: the four navies creating a "standing and interoperable Indo-Pacific fleet"; a mutual defence pact with NATO-like obligations; greater collaboration on space programs; and even a formal arrangement for CANZ to feed into the positions Britain takes as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

 

"Bob [Seely]'s ideas about the Anglosphere are entirely correct … If we can do something better [with Australia, Canada and NZ] we certainly should," Mr Johnson told a press conference, adding that he had long championed the idea of a common travel area between Britain and Australia.

"These are nations that are very similar in many ways – we share very, very similar interests and a uniquely shared set of values."

In a foreword to Mr Seely's report, Mr Johnson said the proposals represented "creative thinking about improving our already strong relations with the Anglosphere".

Strategic rethink required: Brandis

Australia's High Commissioner to Britain, George Brandis, attended the launch of the report. Speaking to the BBC earlier in the day, he welcomed moves to deepen bilateral ties.

 

Mr Brandis noted the close integration between the two countries' intelligence agencies and armed forces, and welcomed the enhanced British naval and diplomatic presence in the Pacific. He said Britain needed to think strategically about its post-Brexit global role.

"Britain's desire to adopt a global posture is to be welcomed," he said. "Britain needs to be looking beyond the horizon, beyond Brexit, and asking itself the question what is the shape of the global order going forward, and what in particular is Britain's place in it going forward?"

Mr Brandis on Monday also published an op-ed in the Daily Telegraphnewspaper, a pro-Brexit broadsheet, arguing that Britain needs to avoid the temptations of protectionism after Brexit – and should heed Australia's precedent in responding to structural economic change in the 1970s and 1980s.

"When confronted by change, it can be comforting to seek to shield oneself from the outside world. This was the sentiment Australia fell victim to in the 1970s," he wrote. It was "wrong then, [and] ... wrong now".

"For the first time in almost half a century, Britain can be master of its own trading destiny. It is an exciting opportunity – but only if it is bold enough to seize the day."

Unfounded fears

In recent weeks the British agricultural lobby has been raising concerns about being undercut by cheaper imports if there is a no-deal Brexit and the government cuts tariffs – raising the prospect of post-Brexit Britain defensively raising trade barriers rather than confidently tearing them down.

Against that backdrop, the issue of market access for farm products could be one of the toughest parts of any future negotiation of an Australia-Britain free-trade agreement.

Mr Brandis addressed this head on in his op-ed: "The hungry middle classes of Asia provide us with markets for our agricultural products that we will forever struggle to satisfy – which, incidentally, puts paid to the notion that British markets would be swamped with Antipodean beef and lamb under a bilateral trade deal."

Mr Johnson first promoted the idea of an Australia-Britain common travel area when he was Mayor of London. His enthusiasm came after a concerted lobbing campaign by the Australian government for more open access for Australians to the British labour market, following a squeeze on several of the most commonly used visa categories from 2011 onwards.

The idea was rejected by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, amid efforts to bring down non-EU migration, although the British government has offered speedier access for Australians through the long passport queues at Heathrow and other airports. Canberra has also been wary about any reciprocal offer to loosen the regime for Britons wishing to work or live in Australia, given the potential numbers who might seek to come.

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