The European Union, Brexit and implications for Australia

In Europe, the European Union, commonly referred to as the EU, is being challenged and opposed by many European nations, both within and outside of it. Financial troubles and increasing levels of migration in recent years have strained European nations’ commitment to the Union. Some of these nations feel that the EU has too much influence over their nations, particularly on issues such as trade, economics and immigration. Immigration is a particularly contentious issue for these nations. Currently, all member nations of the EU allow for visa-free movement for citizens within the EU bloc of nations, known as the Schengen Zone. Additionally, the EU parliament in Brussels plays a role in where migrants to the EU end up. By way of EU law, migrants to Europe can be allocated to countries other than the ones they arrive in. The current migration crisis involving Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime and persecution from ISIS has only exacerbated these concerns among many EU nations. EU member nations in Central and Eastern Europe in particular have pushed back hard against EU law, as they have to date been responsible for integrating the majority of refugee arrivals. In many instances, mass protests have occurred against the EU’s open border policies toward refugees, with protestors demanding that borders be controllers and migration stemmed.

Britain, one of the most influential nations within the EU is currently debating ‘Brexit’, Britain’s removal from the European Union. Currently, Britain is just about evenly split between those who want to remain and those who want to leave, with the option of exiting the EU being slightly more favoured. As one of the largest economies within the EU, Britain leaving the EU would have considerable impact economically throughout Europe. Many of the smaller economies in the European Union, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe benefit from simplified access to the British economy. These nations also benefit from the funds Britain contributes to the EU, which is then reinvested in these smaller nations for things such as infrastructure development. For those in favour of Brexit, including prominent British Conservative Party members such as London Mayor Boris Johnson and prominent Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan, leaving the EU is a means of regaining control of their country from the excessive bureaucracy of Brussels. From their perspective, leaving the European Union would lead to greater economic growth, border control and control over foreign policy, among other things. Those who believe in keeping Britain in the EU, on the other hand, argue that exiting the EU would harm Britain’s long-term economic prospects and leave Britain more isolated in an ever-more globalised world. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a firm supporter of the Remain campaign, has argued that leaving the EU would be harmful to the British economy. He argued that too many British industries rely on open trade with the EU to justify Brexit, and that doing so would cost jobs, devalue the pound and stall the economy more broadly.

Although Australia is far away from Britain, Brexit could have some implications here. If Britain were to leave the EU, it would be required to renegotiate trade treaties the world over to compensate, including with Australia. Much of Australia’s trade with Britain is predicated on deals the UK has in place with the EU. Were this to change, Australia would not only have to renegotiate trade with the UK, but also with the European Union, despite only recently agreeing to a free trade deal with the EU. Were Britain to leave the EU, they would likely seek to increase engagement with Australia. Australia, alongside New Zealand and Canada has long been referred to by British Eurosceptics as the Anglosphere, a collection of English-speaking nations within the Commonwealth with similar cultures and market economies. An agreement with these nations, including free trade, military alliances and visa-free migration, would likely be sought by Britain in the case of their exit from the EU.

The referendum on Brexit is still over three months away. Whichever way Britain votes, it will have a considerable effect on the country, Europe more broadly and even on Australia to an extent. Considering that Australia goes to the polls only a matter of months, or even potentially weeks after the vote, Australia’s economic partnership with Britain may soon be notably altered. Either way, Britain’s EU referendum is a vote which Australia should keep an eye on.

 

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