CANZUK, the little-known proposal for a political union between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, has been gaining traction in the past year. While advocates of the union have varying ideas over its exact form, the general concept is to allow free trade, the free movement of people, and increased foreign policy and defense cooperation between the four sovereign states. The main rationale for this new kind of bloc is that in a world increasingly fraught with geopolitical tensions, CANZUK could act as a significant power to promote values of democracy, openness, human rights, and economic freedom.
On the other hand, CANZUK has also attracted many critics, who argue that it is reminiscent of an age of Anglo-Saxon empire that unrealistically ignores the huge geographic distances between its members. Other critics have labeled CANZUK as a mere escape route for a post-Brexit United Kingdom in need of trading partners. To date, the biggest proponents of the union inside the government are from the conservative parties of the respective countries.
Much of this criticism, however, is misguided and is overly focused on the wrong aspects of the proposed bloc. What it fails to see is the pragmatic basis for the union’s founding and the benefits it would bring for the citizens of these four states. Unlike the EU, which is a supranational organization that can make top-down decisions, CANZUK would simply be an alliance of sovereign states with similar values and levels of GDP.
In this sense it may be able to avoid the bureaucratization and malaise experienced by the EU in recent years, thereby avoiding conflict and disagreement between its members. Unlike what critics of CANZUK like to argue, the union does not have to be viewed in an Anglo-Saxon identity-based way as its objectives are primarily economic. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity for four increasingly multicultural states with similar values to wield more influence globally, while providing their citizens with higher levels of prosperity and choice.
Addressing the critics
The criticism that the vast geographic distance between CANZUK members would hinder certain types of cooperation and economic activity like frequent cross-border trading is certainly valid. This is why if CANZUK were to materialize, it should only focus on realistic issues in the political and economic spheres that countries of their stature can feasibly address. Economically, this would mean allowing each nation to continue focusing on industries it already deems important, such as Canada’s auto supply chain within North America and Australia’s mining exports to Asian partners.
A more productive area for CANZUK to address would be high-tech goods and services, as remote-work and software development do not rely on geographic proximity. Through automatic work-visas and coordinated research and development funding for emerging industries like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology, hubs that attract talent across member states could form in cities like Toronto, London, and Sydney. This could allow these cities to become global tech powers and bring CANZUK members to the forefront of innovation, positions currently occupied by the United States and China.
Cooperation in regards to the regulation of these emerging industries could make it easier for companies operating in multiple member states to conduct business. A recent example where such coordination would have been beneficial is in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. All four members have world-class medical systems, yet the UK approved the AstraZeneca vaccine nearly two months before Canada did, giving it a big head start on its vaccine rollout. In theory, a coordinated regulatory system could have made the approval dates simultaneous and saved lives in the process.
A moderate world power
On the security and geopolitics side, some proponents of CANZUK advocate for a combined military budget that would help buttress the Western alliance along with the U.S against an adversarial China. However, this vision of becoming a significant world power is incompatible with the size of CANZUK’s militaries, who are not equipped and unlikely to engage in the sort of geostrategic great power competition typically seen by superpowers.
Instead of throwing its combined military power into geopolitically sensitive areas like the South China Sea, CANZUK could work to significantly improve its cyber capabilities or use its combined influence in the diplomatic sphere. On cyber, Australia has claimed it has come under Chinese attack repeatedly over the past year. Pooled cyber defense efforts against state and non-state actors alike could boost the existing Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance of CANZUK members plus the United States, thus adding greater protection.
Collectively engaging in diplomacy would also speak to the strengths of CANZUK’s members. Similar to how Canada leveraged its middle power attributes in the 1990’s by having a heavy diplomatic presence and leading the conference for the treaty to ban landmines, CANZUK could use diplomacy to influence issues ranging from climate change to refugee protection. Like the European Union, some internal differences would have to be settled before the group could function as a formal unit. However, there is less variation between the four members than the 27 EU members, and compromises have already been reached on climate and free-trade deals between the countries. Acting together, these efforts would carry more weight in the international arena, making the advancement of goals that these states already share more likely. The CANZUK members’ middle power status could deter potential hostilities with other nations.
These practical efforts at diplomatic and economic integration should be at the forefront for those trying to conceptualize CANZUK. They compliment the relative ease with which CANZUK could be implemented given the similarities in terms of values, culture, income, and services. They focus on areas where progress can realistically be made. An identity-based approach would validate CANZUK’s critics and could lessen its appeal to the general population. The pragmatic, future-oriented approach that seeks to benefit CANZUK’s cities, people, and standing in the world is the only way that this idea could reach the mainstream, and perhaps one day become a reality.
Edited by Chelsea Bean and Tuti Sandra