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World

Australia keenly watching UK's Brexit referendum

Australia held its last referendum 17 years ago on whether to become a Republic. Now it's watching to see what the UK will do on June 23. Helen Clark reports from Perth.

Though Australia too wished for a larger measure of sovereignty, there are not terribly strong parallels between the two referendums. Those who wished for a Republic saw a more Asia-centric role for Australia and believed the relationship between Australia and Britain had long passed its most useful point. Australia needed an Australian head of state, not a distant queen. Others thought an Australian Republic seemed an uncertain thing, and the parliamentary model was never properly explained: Could former cricket star Shane Warne end up as president?

Australia is holding its general election on July 2, and as a result there is far less interest than there might normally be in such an historic event being played out in Europe. Politicians are busy giving stump speeches or debating the latest internet scandal.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Sky News, an Australian Cable news channel, recently that "If the British people in their wisdom decide to stay in the European Union, then we would welcome that."

Australia is working toward the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, and having Britain 'In' would be useful. Australia's last three major

trade deals

have been with large Asian economies: Japan, Korea and China.

Turnbull said, "The EU is an enormous economic and political entity and from our point of view - you might say from our selfish point of view - having a country to whom we have close ties and such strong relationships... is definitely an advantage."

man in front of flag (c) picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Griffith

Prime Minister Turnbull is keen on a fully functional EU

A unified Anglosphere?

One idea put forward by the Leave camp, and one which has gathered some comment here, is whether a Britain out of the EU would be able to ignite an Anglosphere renaissance. Whilst the idea has certain merits, few other Anglosphere nations see any benefit. The US, Australia and New Zealand have all expressed a desire for Britain to remain in the EU.

The five nations already cooperate on information-sharing via the Five Eyes programme - Australia keeps watch on neighbours and friends like Indonesia and New Zealand on Pacific nations - and have cooperated over military efforts, but there is little real use in an English-speaking bloc: would they trade more, or collaborate on climate change? How?

Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans wrote in The Australian in February, "Probably the hardest truth that Britain's Anglosphere dreamers must confront is that there is just no mood politically, in any of the candidate countries of which I'm aware, to build some new global association of the linguistically and culturally righteous. We just don't particularly think of ourselves as Anglo any more."

An Anglosphere defense?

Would this make any difference to Australian security and defense, however? Likely no, in most ways.

Within the hundreds of pages of the most comprehensive Australian Defense White Paper (DWP) of years, released in February there was one omission: The United Kingdom. There is lip service to ties, and to friendship, but strategically the UK does not matter to the future force planners of Canberra. The Lowy Institute's, an Australian foreign policy think tank, Crispin Rovere wrote, "The Defence White Paper gives attention to the UK commensurate with its influence in our strategic affairs: marginal."

The paper's focus is the United States, Southeast Asia, good behavior in the

South China Sea

and closer regional relations. It is intent upon sticking with the status quo, or rules-based order and believes US norms have been vastly beneficial across the region and planet.

Whether the UK leaves the EU or not has little bearing on Australian defense issues, but it is highly unlikely that Australia would benefit strategically from an emancipated Britain.

One downside was outlined by former Australian diplomat and Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley. He commented at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that "Australia has a real interest in sustaining Britain's EU membership. If Britain leaves we will have to re-focus from London to another point of entry. The French submarine comes one way, and we go the other."

Australien U-Boot Shortfin Barracuda

Australia is keen on maintaining a strong strategic partnership with the EU - including the UK

Australia recently inked an AUD50-billion (33 billion-euro, $37 billion) deal with France for it to design and co-build 12 modified shortfin

Barracuda submarines.

However some political sentiment for the EU may run through the DWP: Australia, being a middle power, likes groupings, blocs and consensus. It's even tried to push the BRICS' little brother version: MIKTA [Five major middle powers Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia - the ed.].

In that context Britain leaving the collective makes little sense to Canberra as surely sometimes it can be better to disagree together.

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