Leave or not to leave? That is the question floating around British political discussions about the UK’s future in the European Union (EU). An assessment report called Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union published on Monday 22 July by the British Foreign Office shows that the UK’s position in Europe is a burning issue not only at a national level but also internationally.
Australia, along with the US and Japan, has expressed its support for the UK’s on going membership in the EU.
In his letter from 14 February 2013 addressed to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr recognises “the UK’s strength and resilience“ and “looks forward to seeing it continue as a leading economy and effective power”.
He is convinced that “strong, active membership of the EU contributes to this.”
According to Dr Tom Conley, Senior Lecturer at Griffith Business School and expert at Australian foreign policy, the Australian involvement in Euro-British affairs has primarily strong economic roots.
“Australian companies based in the United Kingdom will be at a disadvantage in engaging with the wider European market if the UK withdraws from the EU. The UK is a major destination for Australian investment accounting for 17 per cent of all Australian outward investment stocks. … Moreover, Britain has a positive effect on the EU’s stance on trade and investment openness and provides other influences on strategic affairs more in line with Australia’s own position,” he told The Source News.
Similarly, former Australian Minister for Trade and Competitiveness Craig Emerson in his letter to his British counterpart Vince Cable stressed the UK’s importance for Australia’s economy, and encouraged Britain “to maintain its influence by remaining an engaged participant in all aspects of the EU internal market.”
Apart from economic interests, Dr Conley also identifies political motives behind the Australian support for the UK’s membership. He particularly emphasises the EU’s crucial role in political stabilization and ongoing integration in Europe, which is perceived in Australia as “a big success”.
From this perspective, “Britain’s retreat from Europe would place the whole European project in jeopardy,” Dr Conley said.
Analysing the reasons for ‘Australian Eurooptimism’, Dr Conley and Professor Robyn Hollander, a political pundit at the Griffith Business School, concur: “Why wouldn’t Australia be optimistic? It gets all the advantages without any of the political disadvantages,” such as interference in national politics or excessive regulation.
However, “these costs and burdens are often exaggerated in the popular debate. … Australia believes that the UK is strengthened both politically and economically by EU membership,” Dr Conley states.
Currently Australia’s pro-European approach is in sharp contrast to its negative position at the time of the UK’s accession to the then European Economic Community in 1973 caused mainly by its concerns over the loss of Australia’s favourable access to UK markets.
Prof Hollander accentuates that “that’s long ago and it’s unlikely Australia would return to its former status”.
Dr Conley concludes that in case of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, “Australia would lose because one of its close allies would no longer be playing a major role in the creation of a single Europe.”
Despite Australia’s argumentation, David Cameron is still determined to hold an ‘in/out’ referendum by the end of 2017, if he is re-elected in the next general election 2015.
According to the most recent opinion poll conducted by YouGov in May 2013, 46% of Britons are in favour of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, whereas only 35% support the status quo and would like to see the UK as part of the EU also in the future.