As post-Brexit Britain casts about for new allies and trading partners, interest is growing in a little-noticed proposal for London to join forces with three former colonies in a new globe-spanning network.
The still notional alliance would be known by the acronym CANZUK – for its member countries Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – and provide for visa-free travel and economic and defense cooperation among its four members.
The logic behind the idea is not immediately obvious. One American foreign policy analyst, when asked for comment, refused at first to believe that the proposed agreement was not a Wikipedia hoax.
But Canadian opposition leader Erin O’Toole has incorporated CANZUK into the official platform of his Conservative Party, and a poll this year found that 94% of British parliamentarians would support the free movement of goods among the four countries while 61% support the free movement of people.
The scheme is being promoted by an organization named CANZUK International, co-founded by James Skinner, a Welsh-born, American-educated political operative whose resume says he has worked with governments in Florida, Britain and Australia. He now lives in Toronto.
Its advisory board includes Sir Michael Craig-Cooper, a former vice lord lieutenant of Greater London; Dominic Johnson, a prominent financier and former vice chairman of Britain’s governing Conservative Party, and John Petrie, a former senior adviser at the Bank of England. Petrie is currently Windsor herald at the College of Arms, the heraldic authority for most of the Commonwealth.
The group’s website identifies its goals as “facilitated migration, free trade and foreign policy coordination” among the four countries in order to forge “a cohesive alliance of nation-states with a truly global outlook.”
That leaves plenty of room for proponents of the idea to fill in the details.
Canadian member of Parliament Tracy Gray told VOA that CANZUK would “provide an opportunity to recognize each other’s professional and trades credentials, have more flexibility in movement of our citizens and to cooperate on the production of vaccines and PPE.”
“CANZUK is an initiative that Canada’s Conservatives are proposing to Canadians,” Gray said. “A Conservative government would establish a working group to facilitate discussions with our potential partners. CANZUK is an exciting proposal that has received support from stakeholders in all potential partner counties.”
Skinner said in an interview that the idea is “snowballing in that it’s gaining more and more support from the public. In the next couple of years or so we hope to see CANZUK come to fruition.”
He said the current focus of the campaign is on forming parliamentary groups in all four countries to advance the idea.
John Blaxland, an Australian defense expert, sees some logic in closer defense cooperation among the CANZUK nations.
"There are already many connections between these four countries - formal, informal, familial, institutional - that make the idea popular for a post-Brexit Britain," he said in an interview. "Much British training takes place in Canadian field training areas. The Australian connection is particularly helpful for Britain’s re-emergence 'East of Suez' and particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific."
But he also sees obstacles. Not only are the countries separated by vast distances, but they also “are in different circumstances facing different challenges.” Even within his own Asia-Pacific region, he said, “New Zealanders tend to be much more focused on the Pacific than Australia, which for Australians is only one focus.”
Another common criticism of CANZUK, Blaxland said, is that all four nations were settled by people of European descent and remain with white majorities.
“There may be an opportunity for an adversary to portray CANZUK as a neo-colonial initiative that’s racially based, and that is something most Australian politicians would be very wary of as that would be potentially politically toxic,” Blaxland said.
“The irony is the CANZUK countries are probably the most multicultural, most diverse, most inclusive countries on the planet, and arguably the most successful multicultural countries on the planet.”
University of Ottawa professor Srdjan Vucetic said the biggest problem facing the project right now is the lack of detail about potential areas of cooperation. Beyond that, he said, “The idea that geographic distance no longer matters for trade or human mobility is fanciful. And no ‘pact’ of this kind is possible without bipartisan support.”
In Washington, Atlantic Council fellow Ben Judah dismissed any concerns that the proposed alliance would undermine other international alliances.
CANZUK “would explicitly reject closing off to the United States or the European Union to get closer to each other,” he said. It “does not come at the expense of other partnerships and trade deals.”