3 July 2019
From 1989 to 1994, Boris Johnson was posted to Brussels for London’s Daily Telegraph, where he delivered a colourful – and largely fictional – series of dispatches about the European Union’s bureaucratic overreach. These stories, including accounts of plans to regulate chip flavours or to classify snails as fish, have been credited with fuelling the British Euroscepticism that led to the Brexit referendum result.
The EU has long had an image problem in Australia, too, where Euroscepticism is mainly underpinned by concerns about European protectionism, particularly farm subsidies. Australia’s counterpart to Johnson was John Howard, who, as a minister, was sent to Europe in 1977 to try to open the way for Australian exports. He returned largely empty-handed, albeit with an acquired antagonism towards Brussels that later became a hallmark of his foreign policy as prime minister.
Australia’s relations with the EU soured further over the Iraq War, as Howard sided with George W. Bush and Tony Blair against European opposition to the conflict. During a visit to Europe in 2003, Howard lambasted the “mandarins of Brussels” and its “supra-bureaucracy”, accusing Europe’s leaders of ungratefully forgetting that the US had come to their rescue during World War II. Not one for turning, Howard still rallies against the EU and is a staunch supporter of Brexit.
Yet the EU is increasingly occupying a new and significant role in Australian foreign affairs. The US’s shift towards protectionism, its trade war with China and its rejection of global treaties and rule-making have left Australia and the EU with more in common than ever before. Both have become champions of values that are being undermined by rising tides of illiberalism and protectionism. Both oppose Trump’s tariffs but have deep concerns about China’s growing ambitions, market restrictions and breaches of human rights. With common approaches to both Washington and Beijing, suddenly Australia and the EU find themselves closely aligned on the world stage.
This alignment of interests was evident at the G20 summit in Osaka last weekend, where Australia and the EU cemented new global partnerships. Neither, as Scott Morrison put it, was going to “sit there and wait” for the US–China trade war to end. Instead, the rivalry between the world’s two largest economies is shaking up traditional relationships and leading to the formation of new blocs and agreements. Morrison has been pursuing talks on an Asia-based trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, while the EU completed a long-awaited deal with the South American trading bloc of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, which will create the largest free trade area in the world. Australia and the EU are also edging closer to signing their own free trade agreement. Last Saturday, Morrison met with European leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, later saying he hoped to finalise the deal by the end of the year. And, despite his position against strong action on climate change, Morrison stood alongside Brussels in endorsing the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. He expressed concerns about the nuclear deal but chose to endorse international consensus over remaining loyal to his closest ally. Donald Trump has withdrawn from both.
Traditionally, Coalition leaders have tended to mistrust the EU’s collaborative approach to diplomacy, preferring a world dominated by strong states such as the US or Britain. But this is changing because Australia can no longer presume that its outlook is shared by the US, particularly under Trump. Once seen as a bastion of protectionism, these days the EU has lower tariffs than the US, and the European preference for restraint and international cooperation – which Canberra previously viewed as an impediment to the US alliance – is increasingly seen in Canberra as a helpful safeguard against Trumpian chaos and protectionism.
Howard backed Brexit as an assertion of national sovereignty. But Brexit is unlikely to strengthen Britain or to undo the EU. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the EU, as a bloc, is Australia’s second-largest trading partner, after China – and it will remain so, says the department, even after Britain is gone.