Britain’s period of surrendering key responsibilities to the European Union is drawing to a close, but the experience serves as a useful reminder of how Australia recently dodged a sovereignty bullet ourselves, and how we face further pressure to relinquish powers that should be ours.
The key to understanding the success of the Brexit campaign lies in the slogan ‘Take Back Control’. Over many years ordinary Britons had become increasingly frustrated that decisions that were once determined in Westminster were now being made by politicians in Brussels who didn’t share their values. Brexit offered them the opportunity to recapture the right to govern themselves.
The list of responsibilities that had been handed to Brussels since the United Kingdom’s 1973 ‘Brentry’ has been enormous – including key parts of immigration, welfare, criminal justice, human rights, employment, family law, consumer law, energy, environment, transport, agriculture, media, industry, trade, tax and economic policy. The direction of travel has been one way and relentless, and continuing membership of the EU would have entailed further pressure to cede more responsibilities, including key aspects of defence policy.
Elite Britain hadn’t even noticed that this loss of sovereignty was an issue. ‘Sovereignty is over-rated,’ sniffed Britain’s premier foreign policy institute Chatham House. Travelling and doing business on the continent was now easier. And allowing cheaper labour into Britain had kept downward pressure on wages and helped keep prices down. The head of the Remain campaign, Lord Rose, reflected the concerns of the elites when he warned that in the event of Brexit ‘the price of labour will, frankly, go up’. The end of cheap labour was not, it must be said, a warning that worried many ordinary Britons.
The loss of control on immigration was keenly felt not only through wages effects but in the realisation that Britain had lost control of its borders. Through legal and illegal immigration and refugee flows, large numbers of people hostile to liberal democratic institutions, free speech, secular government, and equality of the sexes were beginning to make their political presence felt, but the establishment on left and right was adamant that Britain should not even have the policy tools to correct this.
So as we approach the Brexit date, what are the lessons that Australia can draw from Britain’s experience? I would say that the main lesson is ‘Don’t Lose Control.’ Australia has a very powerful global advantage in having a secure sovereignty – strong borders, and a well-defined governance domain – and we would be foolish to relinquish it. This may sound like an obvious lesson, but let me give three recent examples where Australian elites have consciously pressed for a loss of sovereignty.
In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a powerful new regional institution including all the major Asian countries. Immediately dubbed the ‘Asian Union’, this new institution would be able to engage in ‘action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security.’ In making his proposal Rudd explicitly drew on the European Union example, lauding ‘European integration’ and the ‘visionaries’ who planned it. ‘It is that spirit we need to capture in our hemisphere,’ he said.
Rudd’s proposal garnered little regional support but let us consider for a moment that his integration dream did come true, and that Bangkok or Beijing became the Brussels of our own supra-national entity. Over time, following Europe’s lead, significant powers on all sorts of matters relating to immigration, tax, welfare and environment transfer from Canberra to the centre of Asia. If you feel disquieted at the prospect of Australians losing these powers you will start to understand why, mutatis mutandis, ordinary British people voted to leave the EU.
The second example relates to the strong push among Australian policy elites for ever greater union with South Pacific countries. Reflecting this disposition, former chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange and the ABC Maurice Newman has recently proposed a dramatic step up in integration, starting with common institutions such as a central bank and supreme court, and raising the possibility of ‘full political and economic integration’. According to Newman, the ‘gains should significantly outweigh the loss of sovereignty.’
Opening the borders to South Pacific Islanders also enjoys the support of Australia’s premier foreign policy think tank, the Lowy Institute, which in a recent paper argues for the ‘enormous benefits’ of ‘uncapped’ labour migration, notwithstanding their modelling of a 2.5 to 5 per cent cut in Australian wages due to the large influx of low cost workers. (They state that economic theory suggests that in the long-run the wage dampening effect may be insignificant).
The third example is the growing enthusiasm in the foreign policy community to make Australia a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Last week Labor’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, stated that Labor would seek to enable Australian membership if ASEAN were to offer membership. The Australian government says that it would ‘consider very seriously’ any invitation. Any Australian membership would entail submerging our identity to conform with the recently adopted ASEAN slogan ‘One vison, One identity, One community’.
As we can see from these various experiences, there are many high-minded policymakers happy to surrender sovereignty seemingly unaware of the concerns of ordinary people. Most Australians would regard ceding our governance to peoples whose values and interests we don’t share as failing common sense. Most would also see a morphing with Second and Third World countries as a recipe for decline rather than a sign of achievement.
We have the benefit of having seen this movie play out before. It would be folly not to learn from the British experience. We must maintain our strong Australian sovereignty as a key national interest priority. Sovereignty, once lost, is very hard to recapture.
David Alexander is Managing Director (Federal) of Barton Deakin