Could Britain move away from EU and toward the Commonwealth?

On the eve of Cameron's speech about Britain's relations with Europe, some Conservatives are pushing for greater ties with the British Commonwealth, which includes Canada and India.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves his official residence at 10 Downing Street in central London, on his way to the Houses of Parliament to address lawmakers, Wednesday, Jan. 16.

Even as Britain's prime minister puts the final touches on a speech due Friday on his government's plans to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the European Union, his government's foreign secretary was on the other side of the world developing some much older relationships from the days of empire – relationships that some Conservatives hope could prove a viable alternative to the EU.

British Foreign Minister William Hague visited Australia today as part of a diplomatic mission linked to the creation of a global network of embassies in countries of the British Commonwealth. Speaking in Sydney a day after his arrival from New Zealand, Mr. Hague lauded “the bonds of history, family, and values” between Britain and Australia, and said that Britain was “looking East as never before in modern times.”

Hague's visit has special resonance for some Conservatives, coming as it does just before Prime Minister David Cameron's pending speech in the Netherlands that is widely billed as a pivotal moment in Britain’s often turbulent relationship with its European partners. Mr. Cameron is expected to push for a renegotiation of Britain's participation in the EU and put the resulting package to referendum ahead of an expected 2015 general election.

Were such a shift away from the EU to occur, Britain would likely need alternative partners, which some Conservatives argue the British Commonwealth could provide.

Established in its current form in 1949, the Commonwealth of Nations is a global club of 54 members encompassing most former British colonies – including Canada and "BRICS" member India – with Queen Elizabeth II as its head. Activities revolve around goodwill missions, the maintenance of some old imperial trade, and cultural ties, the most visible of which is the Commonwealth Games.

Nostalgia for the glory days of empire lingers stubbornly in many corners of British political society, with some radical young Conservatives arguing that the EU is holding Britain back from focusing on transatlantic ties but also on emerging markets, including many in the Commonwealth.

Those markets include many in Asia, including Australia and New Zealand. Hague said today that “UK exports to the Asia-Pacific region are up 15 percent compared to the previous year, and last year for the first time in decades we exported more outside the European Union than to it, including topping £10 billion in our exports to Australia. Asia today is an engine of global growth, and we are determined to be part of that.”

However, the Commonwealth also suffers from persistent problems including a lack of funds, uncertainty about its true purpose, and intermittent controversies stemming from the human rights records of some members. Canada has warned it may boycott the club’s summit in Sri Lanka this November over the host's alleged war crimes, and it’s not certain if Cameron himself may attend.

Still, the prime minster has talked, such as during a visit to fellow Commonwealth member Malaysia last year, of how relations with “old friends” have been “neglected” while Britain focused on Europe.

A dream whose time has gone?

But while efforts toward building up ties with the Commonwealth are music to the ears of many British Conservatives, most observers at home depict such a move as more of comfort blanket.

“The old empire-commonwealth dream is really just that,” says Anne Deighton, Professor of European International Politics at the University of Oxford. “It has long roots among British Conservatives, roots that go back to the 1950s, but it was not viable then, and is not now.”

She cites an example from the early 1960s when Britain first applied to join what was then the European Economic Community, causing Australia to “kick up a terrible fuss.”

“By the time of the late '60s, they [Australia] had done the sensible thing and reoriented their trade policies to their own region, and away from the UK. In security and defense, they turned away from the UK to the US, as the dominant power."

And hopes that the Commonwealth could be a substitute for European markets are at odds with the economic reality, according to Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London

“If you look at the figures it just doesn't add up. Britain does more than 40 percent of its trade with the EU, and less than 10 with the Commonwealth,” he says.

“It’s also not feasible, without actually leaving the EU, for Britain to devise any kind of free trade agreement. Not only Britain would have to leave but there would also have to be an exit by Malta and Cyprus, who are also EU members and members of the Commonwealth.”

An 'Anglosphere' alternative?

Professor Murphy says that a more interesting issue is talk of enhancing a network in the "Anglosphere" – namely the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand – which has become a cause among some conservatives. 

“Although this is the arch-heresy, there has always been an inner Commonwealth and an outer Commonwealth, particularly in terms of defense and diplomacy, going right back to the '40s,” he says.

“There is the major agreement on intelligence sharing between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, so in terms of military liaison, it has always been incredibly close. Now Hague is talking about Britain sharing embassies with Canada and Australia. It's something no one in Commonwealth circles wants to admit because it strikes at the heart of the notion of an expanded multiracial commonwealth. But from a UK perspective that has always been a reality.”

Speaking in Sydney, where he also referred to the security cooperation between the five nations – the so-called "Five Eyes" – as “the most formidable intelligence partnership in the world, based on trust that was a hundred years in the making,” Hague was careful to note that the EU is still the largest single market in the world, “with more than 500 million consumers, 21 million companies, and some of the most dynamic and competitive parts of the global economy.”

Even so, Hague provided the foreword to a manifesto published in London Wednesday by a group representing a third of Conservative MPs and listing areas in which they wanted power clawed back from the EU.

Some of the proposals, he wrote, "could well become future government or Conservative Party policy."

The message will not have been lost on Cameron as he prepared to lay out some of the terms on which he would seek to change Britain's four-decade-old links with the EU – a task which is already cloaked in uncertainty amid unease among in Germany and other states.

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