“Get CANZUK Done,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole tweeted last fall. The six-letter word is a call for a new four-country partnership or, as he calls it, a pact: “The world needs Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to express our shared values and commitment to rule of law.” Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong concurs, as suggested in the readouts of his recent conversations with the Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners to Canada.
Where is this idea coming from? The simple answer is Brexit. Ever since the British voted to leave the European Union in 2016, a small but media-savvy group of conservative think tankers and thought leaders has been trumpeting mutually beneficial “growth potential” in economic and security relations between these four states. The continuing transition from a United States-led “liberal” international order to a more fragmented one built around multiple centres of power has moved this conversation forward as well, inspiring some strategists to write about “a CANZUK space agency” and even a new transcontinental CANZUK confederation – a rich, liberal democratic superpower of 130 million people.
The CANZUK that Canadian Conservatives have in mind is more down to earth. Adopted in 2018 at a policy conference in Halifax, their plan focuses on five areas: free trade in goods and services, visa-free labour and leisure mobility for citizens (including retirement relocation), a reciprocal health care agreement, increased consumer choice and protection for travel, and security co-ordination. Two years later, the Conservative government of Boris Johnson expressed interest in similar ideas, and has been exploring them since, in close co-ordination with the new “all party Parliamentary group for CANZUK.”
Mr. O’Toole often introduces CANZUK as a policy idea that “resonated the most” during his party leadership campaign in 2020. Most Conservatives – most Canadians, in fact – strongly support free trade. They would readily support efforts to deepen it with the U.K., Australia and New Zealand – whether bilaterally, as with a soon-to-come Canada-U.K. Trade Continuity Agreement, or multilaterally, as within the framework of an expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Public opinion polls, at least those sponsored by CANZUK advocates, likewise show majority support, even in Quebec, for the idea of reciprocal free movement. After all, why not have a relatively hassle-free option of exchanging those post-COVID-19 winters in Brampton or Boucherville for summers in Brisbane?
As for security co-ordination, much of it already exists – just look at the scope and depth of the Five Eyes partnership or at how the top diplomats in Ottawa, London and Canberra are co-ordinating their statements on Hong Kong.
Despite all of these resonances, the chances of a formal CANZUK pact are slim to none.
The most obvious reason is geographic distance, which matters in trade and tourism as well as in defence. Geography alone makes CANZUK unrealistic.
Another challenge is a lack of bipartisan support. Some of it has to do with how different political leaders engage with history. When Mr. O’Toole got up before dawn to chat about CANZUK with like-minded politicians in Australia and the U.K. at one live-streamed event organized from London, he felt free to make a tired joke about the sun never setting on the British Empire. But talk to other Canadian leaders and you will find them struggling to accept a geopolitical pact that smacks of Victorian- and Edwardian-era dreams of bringing the “English-speaking peoples” closer together.
Canadian leaders also know that new pacts entail trade-offs and opportunity costs. Canadians might like the idea of CANZUK but they also care, disproportionally so, about what Europeans think of them. Keep in mind as well that the European Union is Canada’s second-largest trading partner and second-largest source of foreign direct investment, and that Germany’s exports to Canada are twice U.K. levels. There is even evidence to suggest that Canadian foreign policy preferences mirror those of European major and middle powers and Japan more than those of Australia and the U.K.
The most important consideration of all is, of course, the new Biden-Harris administration in Washington. The U.S. President’s plan to hold a global “Summit for Democracy” is already pushing Canadian leaders to work on strengthening alliances and partnerships with many countries, not just with the “ANZUK trio.”
Conservatives understand this. On Twitter, Mr. Chong recently urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to offer to host the summit in Canada. Mr. Chong’s idea is a good one. It is also consistent with Mr. O’Toole’s very first foreign policy statement as the party leader. To “stand up to China,” he wrote in September, Canada must work closely with all of “our allies,” notably including the United States, Japan and India.
Quite. Canadian foreign policy could use new ideas, but CANZUK is not one of them.
This blog was first published in the Globe and Mail