Britannia makes waves with £20bn ‘down-payment’

Defence analysts: the decision to accept the BAE Systems tender clearly involved ‘political’ considerations.

Since Britain voted to leave the EU a vocal group of conservative opinion leaders have been urging the Australian government to take a proactive role in supporting the British decision in every practical way possible, writes Geoff Kitney.

Britannia Rules the Waves, screamed the headline in the national daily newspaper, The Australian – and across the conservative media in Australia the news was greeted rapturously.

The Australian Government had just announced that it had chosen the giant British arms manufacturer BAE Systems to build a replacement fleet of nine frigates for the Australian Navy, a decades-long program which will cost more than A$35 billion (£20bn). It is the biggest British naval weapons-systems export project purchase for decades.

Normally, weapons systems purchases excite little general public interest in Australia, except for debates about the huge amounts of money involved.

Just weeks before the Brexit vote, Australian signed its biggest ever defence equipment contract – a A$50 billion deal with France to build a new generation of submarines for the Australian Navy.

But this one was different.

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union 18 months ago, a very vocal and potentially influential group of conservative opinion leaders have been urging the Australian government to take a proactive role in supporting the British decision in every practical way possible.

Suggestions have ranged from negotiating a super-fast Free Trade Agreement (FTA), developing new work and travel rules (to make it much easier for British and Australian citizens to move between the two countries) to big picture ideas such as creating new strategic architecture – built on the major English-speaking powers.

The Australian government has indicated that, in principle, it wants to be as pro-active in strengthening ties with post-Brexit Britain as is consistent with its own strategic interests.

But over the past two years, in reality, Australia has been more European Union focused than Brexit-UK focused.

Just weeks before the Brexit vote, Australian signed its biggest ever defence equipment contract – a A$50 billion deal with France to build a new generation of submarines for the Australian Navy.

This led, a few months ago, to a state visit to Australia by French President Emmanuel Macron, only the second-ever visit by a French president to Australia.

Submarines were not the only talking point between France and Australia. President Macron was also in Australia to discuss moves to advance negotiations between Australia and the EU for a Free Trade Agreement. Soon after Macron departed, EU officials arrived in Australia to begin formal negotiations.

For some conservatives, the impression that Australia was giving priority to an EU trade deal over a UK free trade deal was unsettling.

Hostility towards the EU among Anglophile Australians is barely less intense than between the UK Brexit movement and the EU.

While the ins-and-outs of the Brexit process barely get any attention in much of the mainstream media in Australia, the conservative press – especially Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets – carries considerable Brexit news and commentary.

The tone of the commentary is overwhelmingly pro-Britain and anti the EU.

A commentary by one leading conservative columnist recently savaged what he called “the EU’s customary vandalism” of Britain’s interests by seeking “punishing economic revenge” unless it agreed to accept in the Brexit process the continuing free movement of people across UK borders.

Conservative commentators have revelled in the discomfort of German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her domestic political problems caused by internal divisions over her stand on asylum seekers.

Hostility towards the EU among Anglophile Australians is barely less intense than between the UK Brexit movement and the EU.

Australian conservatives have been overjoyed to see the stand taken by the new Italian government against refugee boat arrivals. They have long argued that European countries should adopt the conservative Australian government’s strategy of turning back refugee boats and sealing Australia’s borders – together with tough measures to hold in offshore detention camps people who have arrived on Australian shores “illegally”.

Conservative commentators have commended Italy for what they say is Italy adopting Australia’s border protection policies.

To them, Angela Merkel’s “open borders” attitude was catastrophic for European security and for public confidence in European governments.

But, while the pro-Brexit crowd has been vocally behind Britain during the negotiations between London and Brussels, urging the May Government to be ruthless, it has had little to offer the Brexit cause other than its rhetoric.

A free trade agreement between the UK and Australia was seen from the outset of the Brexit process as the best tangible thing Australia could do to help the British economy in the transition period from EU membership to “freedom”.

Prime Minister Theresa May responded to this by indicating that an Australia-UK FTA would be her government’s highest priority as it took the first steps towards her government’s goal of making the UK a “great global trading nation”.

But, unlike President Macron, she has not been to Australia to advance the idea even though there were suggestions she might dash to Australia for the announcement of the frigate deal. She did, however take to Twitter:

May’s immediate problems inside her own government had to take precedence over post-Brexit relations with potential FTA partners.

But, despite this, the Australian decision to buy the British frigates can be seen as a “down-payment” on the post-Brexit economic bilateral relationship.

Defence analysts say that the decision to accept the BAE Systems tender clearly involved “political” considerations.

The UK ships are a decade away from being built. The competing tenderers Navantia of Spain and Fincantieri of Italy would have been delivered sooner.

Because the UK ships do not yet exist, Australia has accepted the high risk of delays and cost overruns.

But, by taking this risk, Australia has given a big boost to Britain’s hopes of reviving its naval export capability.

The deal also is being seen by the pro-Brexit crowd as a big step towards realising their dream of an “Anglosphere” strategic framework in which the UK, Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand intensify their economic, trade, security and cultural relationships.

Such an alliance is being promoted as a vital means of promoting “western civilisation” and defending it from what conservative commentators say are grave threats posed by “the progressive left, social justice warriors, out-of-control political correctness and identity politics”.

In September the Brexit referendum’s most visible and divisive poster boy – former UKIP leader Nigel Farage – will visit Australia on a lecture tour during which he will beat the drum for support from Australia for Brexit Britain. He is sure to get a high profile, in the Murdoch press at least.

From the other side of the world, the Brexit movement among Australian conservatives will intensify its efforts to ensure that the Brexit they dream of will become a reality, with as much help as possible from Australia.

 


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Headline Image Credit: esfera/Shutterstock.com

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