In many corners, Brexit was seen as the result of an island mentality. Suspicion of outsiders and a sense of greatness compared to the rest of the world are usual warning signs of an island mentality; both seemed to play a role in the Brexit result, with calls for more control over immigration and a belief that Britain is big enough to go it alone being major rallying calls of the Leave camps. Yet following the Brexit vote, the Brexiteers-in-chief largely rejected any sign of or cry for a retreat into isolationism. They advocated Britain going out into the world. So while its detractors would like to label Brexit as an act of an island mentality, there are few serious proponents for openly embracing an island mentality.
Yet if Britain is not suffering from an island mentality the question must still be considered why Britain never committed to the EU in a way that other member states did. Schengen, the Euro, the rebate, and various other opt-outs all kept the UK apart from the rest. Even when a referendum was not being considered by the fringe, let alone the mainstream, Britain still managed to hold the door out open. Indeed, without those differences, Britain would have struggled to extricate itself from the bloc— imagine, if you dare, how daunting Brexit would be if those issues had to be sorted as well. So Britain was never truly committed to staying in, even when it claimed to be. The question is is there a way to create more suitable blocs that Britain can thrive in which will not be held to the whims of any possible lingering island mentality.
While there is an argument against blocs, it seems that, like many things in life, they can be enjoyed in moderation. While there was an overwhelming argument for the original EEC, it’s subsequent evolution into the EU has made it increasingly unstable. Like an unsupervised child in a sweet shop, it over-consumed and overreached to the point that it grew sick. It’s future soon bore little resemblance to the promise it once showed. An inability to deal with the migrant crisis, perpetual problems with Eurozone integration, soaring youth unemployment, and a cripplingly slow bureaucracy all were largely caused by increased political integration. Animosity was fostered between states through rapid expansion, highly uneven levels of migration, forced political measures, and the fallout from trying to unite Europe under a single currency. The EU may well soldier on, but, if it is to survive while avoiding substantial unrest and economic decline, it will have to solve these issues.
Yet history allows us to learn from these mistakes and subsequent blocs should be able to found themselves with the prerequisite safeguards in place. First, political integration must only be done if the people will it. If there is no public desire, the integration will never truly take hold and can be harboured for generations — indeed, the idea that Scotland was forced into the Union against her will still lies at the heart of many cultural arguments for her independence, over 300 years on. The Scottish example demonstrates that there will always be a bias towards geographically closer government. The idea of being neglected by a distant elite is one that resonates strongly with disaffected groups. Any political integration must be done with this in mind. The most crucial element is an ease of power to flow between national and international bodies so as to allow international unity and co-operation to flourish alongside national sovereignty and sensibilities.
Secondly, there must be a firm limit as to the purpose of the bloc. The EEC was designed to be a customs union that would foster better relations within the European community through economic growth and improved trade relations. Some, such as Tony Benn, saw it as the beginning of a political union, but it took the Maastricht Treaty and the enlargement of the bloc’s goals for the seeds of Brexit to truly be planted. All unions face opposition from some quarters, but it is when they become something that the original signatories did not perceive that they endanger their existence. This is not to say that blocs should not evolve, only that they should not alter their purpose: the members of Twickenham would not complain if the facilities were refurbished; they would be in uproar if it became a football stadium. If it is deemed desirable for states within a bloc to form a union in a separate field, then a separate bloc should be created. The initial bloc may help to facilitate the creation of the subsequent bloc, but beyond that they should be distinct — allowing for states to choose which fields they wish to co-operate in. Thus as the needs and desires of states shift, so should the blocs that they are part of shift.
Thirdly, the member states must have relevant aspects in common. The Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement (TTTA) — the free movement agreement between Australia and New Zealand — works as the nations are similarly culturally, economically, and socially. This limits resentment to migrants, ensures that there is no mass migration, and ensures that the migrants integrate into their new environment seamlessly. Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has consciously avoided focusing on political differences as they have sought to bolster economic growth in the region. While there have been agreements to promote democracy, none of the states have sought to overtly push their less democratic counterparts towards the will of the people as it would only serve to weaken the unity of the bloc and risk jeopardising future advancements.
Finally, no state should be overly reliant on any single bloc. It is not desirable for any single bloc to be in situ for eternity. The natures of people, economics, technology, and even geography can change the desirable arrangement for a state to be in. Becoming overly reliant on a bloc will inevitably lead to a painful separation that will severely hamper the state and its people. Yet of more immediate concern is that once a state becomes reliant on a bloc it surrenders itself to its whims. Thus, the state loses control over its destiny. This, in turn, disenfranchises the people, who will look to the bloc as the source of their woes, harboring resentment and decreasing their will for their state to act in the best interest of the bloc. This creates a natural limit, subject to the will of the people, to the reach of the bloc.
(In addition to that last point, it is critically important that any states that wish to leave the bloc have a clear and straightforward path to follow. Not only does this provide stability to both parties should splits occur, it also instils a level of competitiveness. In easing the transition in and out of blocs, states are afforded the ability to consider in which bloc their best interests lie without having to weigh it so heavily against any cancellation fee or uncertainties. This in turn creates a dynamic element in a creation that is instinctively protectionist and stale.)
As Britain re-enters the global sphere, the issue of blocs will rise again. Yet the government must resist an Iraq War-esque reflex to avoid all blocs as a consequence of a single bad experience, but rather learn from that experience and use it to have greater success in the future. It may be that there are no suitably beneficial blocs to join or create and Britain is better off going it alone, but, not only is this unlikely, it would be criminally negligent not to consider the options and opportunities ahead.
Take, for example, the proposed creation of a Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and UK (CANZUK) free movement bloc, working on the basis of the current TTTA. These are nations that have a shared language, a common heritage, similar cultures, identical parliamentary systems, close diplomatic links, and a single monarch. Such a bloc would cement ties between the nations, increase the opportunity to travel, work, or study abroad, and lay the groundwork for future free-trade arrangements between the countries. Crucially, these nations also have a similar economic level.
It is a popular idea, with 88% of respondents to a recent survey — carried out by the, admittedly not impartial, CFMO — from the four countries thinking that it would have a positive social or cultural impact and 86% thinking that it would have a positive economic effect. While these numbers should be considered likely to be higher than in the general population, it is telling that fewer than one in four thought that lack of public support would be a stumbling point for the creation of the bloc.
Now let us put it through the aforementioned criteria for blocs. First, it would not be a political union. Despite affinity for the other nations, it must be considered that there is little appetite in the UK for Britain to join another political union. More importantly, such a union would make little sense, given the differing environments, industries, and challenges of the nations. Secondly, the bloc would principally be a free movement area with a view to creating a free trade area. Operations such as Five Eyes would continue, but would be considered separate to the bloc as would any military co-operation and agreements. However, fundamentally, the difficulties in and lack of desire towards creating a political union would prevent the bloc overreaching its stated aims. Thirdly, the bloc is based on a shared cultural and social history. The nations are also of a similar economic standing. The largest difference in GDP per capita in CANZUK, according to the United Nations, would be between Australia ($ 51,352) and New Zealand ($ 38,294) — a factor of 1.34; for the EU, the largest difference is between Luxembourg ($ 100,161) and Bulgaria ($ 6,847) — a factor of 14.83. Finally, once again, the lack of political union would ensure that no state would be over reliant on the bloc.
One of the other elements to consider is how the bloc might look to expand in the future. The criteria for joining would be to be of a similar economic level and to have a sufficiently shared cultural heritage. Let us now consider some of the possible recruits.
First is Hong Kong. For Hong Kong to be included would require the securing of its independence from China before it loses its autonomous status in 2047. The probability for this occurring, as well as the subsequent case for Hong Kong to join the prospective bloc, decrease by the day. Beijing will not allow for a Western-friendly city state to emerge on its border for defence, trade, and maritime reasons as well as their desire to assert themselves as the world’s superpower. So Beijing looks to assert its dominance and culture, not least through the swathes of mainlanders who are migrating into the city state. Thus, despite some recent, well-documented push back, independence and membership of the group must be considered highly unlikely. Yet as a British territory just twenty years ago, its cultural heritage maintains strong similarities to the other nations and its current GDP per capita is almost identical to Canada’s. So, should the unthinkable happen, the leaders of Hong Kong would almost certainly be able to expect an invitation to join the bloc.
Second is the USA, being the fifth member of Five Eyes, a key ally to every member of the bloc, with the same mother country, a shared language, and a GDP per capita not too uncomfortably above the other states.The primary issue with the USA joining would be that it would dominate the bloc. As well as being the world’s largest economy, its population figures would dwarf the rest of the bloc: the population of the current bloc would be around 127 million, while the USA currently has approximately 324 million with annual immigration of around one and a quarter million. While the TTTA has shown that it is possible for a bloc to endure despite a significant population difference, this would create an enormous imbalance of power. Thus, while the USA fits the criteria, it would not be in the UK’s national interest to let it happen and it seems unlikely that the other nations would permit it either. Such a move would also, inevitably, require a less stridently anti-immigration stance in the White House
Third is Ireland. On many fronts, Ireland appears to be a prime candidate to join CANZUK: English is a major language; there is a shared cultural inheritance borne through a long history of fighting alongside one another; there is a pre-existent free movement agreement that both predates the EU and includes non-EU territories. Overtures of this nature would also do a great deal to soften Irish fears over any potential fallout from Brexit, both north and south of the border. However, with Ireland being part of the EU and vulnerable to it’s desire for ever-closer union (it is too early to say whether Brexit will hasten or put the brakes on such movements), such an arrangement would be fraught with problems. Both blocs would want the Irish to commit firmly to their bloc at the expense of commitments expected by the other.
The main stumbling block to this is current perceptions of immigration. According to polling, immigration has consistently been the most important political issue for Britons since May 2014 with around 7 in 10 favouring fewer immigrants. Immigration and control over it was one of the main spurs towards the Brexit vote. However, to rubbish the idea of CANZUK on the basis of immigration’s unpopularity is to mistake dislike of the effects of migration for dislike of migration.
Frequently criticisms, fair or otherwise, of EU immigration included cultural differences, differences in language, depression of wages, benefit (including health) tourism, failure to integrate, and risk of terrorism. None of these can be expected issues with a CANZUK bloc. A common heritage, language, parliamentary system, and monarch ensures that governments can easily engage with one another, while the populations see little need for migrants to integrate as they are effectively already integrated through their similar cultures. Meanwhile, that the members of CANZUK make up four of the five members of the Five Eyes security agreement ensures that security is unlikely to be compromised by the opening up of borders between the nations. They are also of a similar economic standing. The largest difference in GDP per capita according to the United Nations is between Australia ($ 51,352) and New Zealand ($ 38,294); for the EU, the largest difference is between Luxembourg ($ 100,161) and Bulgaria ($ 6,847). This similarity in economic opportunity means that the founding of the bloc would not see the huge swathes of migration that were synonymous with the arrival of each new country into the EU. Consequently, one would expect little to no depression of wages. Finally, with lessons having been learnt from both the EU and the early days of the TTTA, a simple waiting period on benefits would remove the threat of benefit tourism. It will ensure that those who get benefits have paid into the system, while also stopping people looking to “benefit shop” by hopping from country to country.
CANZUK is not essential nor is it inevitable nor is it Britain’s only option. However, it shows how blocs can work in an era when various figures around the globe are advocating a retreat into isolationist nation states. It would do a great deal to show that Britain’s vote in June was not one of an island mentality, but rather one of pragmatism. Blocs are essential to promoting global prosperity, sharing ideas, and co-operation between nations; it is crucial that we fully realise how best to set-up, operate, and view these international bodies. It will require a shift in how we perceive them, but Brexit has provided us with a golden opportunity to do so. Let us not waste it.