THE success of “Out” in the June 30 referendum held by the United Kingdom on its membership in the European Union has been widely labeled a historic mistake committed by an elderly, possibly senile generation. The majority of voters in the said democratic exercise, it has been said, has been misled by Brexit promoters feeding on fears among incipient or closet racists of a massive invasion of likely terrorists disguised as refugees from the Middle East and Africa (and forgetting to mention that some of the terrorists who bombed the London Underground and beheaded reporters or missionaries in the Middle East were British conceived, born, and bred).
Some political scientists have decried the carelessness of the referendum framers in failing to require a greater, two-thirds or three-fourths, majority of voters on such a vital question. Millions have filed an online petition for a second referendum, claiming that the turnout and voting outcome were below even the numbers set by the referendum rules.
But, in any event, there is no denying that membership in the EU has always been a contentious issue both among the political elite and the general population of the UK.
History, in fact, shows that the British have always been at best half-hearted about joining the EU, their interest depending largely on the good economic weather obtaining in the continent and the hope for ameliorating, thereby the bad one in their isles.
Ironically, it was a British Conservative, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who laid the theoretical basis for the EU, proposing for Europe “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety, and in freedom … a kind of United States of Europe.” But the idea of this great Britisher never quite caught on with his successors in power as well as the general population. The UK declined every invitation to join the founding treaties of the EU, a reluctance diagnosed by concerned historians as symptoms of an irremediable case of imperial hangover, a condition borne of nostalgia for the days when the British isles thrived in “splendid isolation” from Europe and when the sun never set on the colonies of peoples the British had subdued and fooled. The UK application was duly refused by General de Gaulle of France, and the British had to wait until the latter’s final retirement to his native village before they were admitted. The reason for de Gaulle’s veto was more on the mark and was perhaps vindicated by the recent referendum. He accused the British of a deep-seated hostility toward European construction and of being more interested in links with the United States.
Under its later treaties, EU decisions ceased to be based on unanimity and came to be based on qualified majorities, with the voting weight of each member proportionate to the size of its population. Under this system of voting, the UK, as one of the most populous members, wields considerable influence but its Parliament, to its great dismay, may find itself implementing an EU law that it opposed. British leaders, notably Mrs. Thatcher, have indeed expressed their opposition to the EU becoming more than an intergovernmental organization, to surrendering the hallowed Sovereignty Principle of the British Parliament to a supranational organization. This, in thunderous pronouncements as well as in unequivocal actions, namely, the refusal to join the euro and the Schengen agreement on unified borders.
The UK has been an oddball in the EU. The result of the Brexit referendum could be said to be a fateful one, a wonder that it had not come earlier. The subtext of the statements of the representatives of the founding members to the effect that leave is leave and the UK should exit as early as possible could well be “Good riddance!”
The Brexit promoters promised their supporters that EU would have to strike a deal, giving the UK access to its single market because, after all, the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world; but the EU makes clear that this access is essentially conditioned on the free movement of people between the EU and the UK, which the Brexit movement vehemently opposed. They also promised a future UK greater than ever, having regained the freedom to conquer wider horizons as in the golden days of empire. The old glory of the British Empire is unfortunately lost to all but the British themselves, especially among Third World countries mindful of the dubious, even catastrophic, legacy of that empire: the partition of Palestine, the border and tribal wars of Africa, the inclusion of Sabah in the Federation of Malaysia… That glory might now be irretrievable on account of new realities, among them the emergence of greater powers and of a world of trading blocs. In other words, the challenges facing those who would succeed Mr. Cameron to the rudder of the British ship of state and guiding it to its next destination are daunting. And for fear that they may not be able to deliver on their promises, or like the devil who disappears, content of having accomplished his task, some Brexit leaders have counted themselves out of contention for the prime-ministership.
Brexit leaders have also prophesied that the UK would not be the last country to leave the EU, with the growing dissatisfaction over the unelected bureaucracy of the EU making decisions without consultation of the sectors and countries affected. But to dismiss the EU as incapable of undertaking necessary reforms to address such complaints appears illogical, considering that the EU is founded on democratic values. In fact, abiding by those values is one of the so-called Copenhagen criteria that applicant countries must meet. The root cause of Brexit is not those complaints but the refusal to embrace the idea of an eventual United States of Europe.
The attainment of a single integrated market seems to be the most important common objective of regional organizations today as shown by the fact that retaining its access to the EU single market is identified as the main challenge facing post-Brexit Britain. In this regard, the establishment of the Asean Economic Community, in Nov. 2015, may be considered rightfully as no mean achievement. In this respect and at this particular juncture, Asean and the EU are now not too far apart from each other.
It used to be a prevailing wisdom that the two organizations are not in the least comparable with each other. The EU is, in the first place, much ahead of Asean, that the EU is founded on a commonality of values harking back to shared Greco-Roman and Christian traditions. But as shown by Brexit, these values are not enough to guarantee a cohesive regional organization. Apart from a nearly common experience of being subjugated by Western colonizers, the past seems hardly to bear an element or force that can bind Asean’s foundation stones together. The characteristic diversity of its members was aggravated by the addition of members of different ideological persuasions. In this context, it is noteworthy, indeed, that the aim of improving the lives of their peoples has proved to be an adequate motivation for the members to work together to realize a viable regional organization.
But it is perhaps precisely because of the wide diversity among its members that there is among Asean members a homogeneity of goals and a common view of the directions that the organization will take. The Asean aims to make its economy, already the third-largest in Asia and seventh-largest in the world, to be in the future even more highly integrated and cohesive, competitive, innovative and dynamic, to enhance the connectivity and sectoral cooperation of its members, to make itself a resilient, inclusive, people-oriented and people-centered organization. For the foreseeable future, as it pursues this transformation, the Asean will continue to be an intergovernmental organization whose decisions are arrived at by consensus among the members. The Asean is confident that as an intergovernmental organization it will continue to be the most successful regional organization in the world, outside of the supranational EU.
After serving in an Asean country and traveling extensively to the other Asean countries, I believe though that while the different ideological orientations of the member-countries matter little, there are not a few socio-cultural factors underpinning Asean harmony.
There are the obvious DNA linkages. When I was Ambassador to Laos, I would often catch my mother thinking the Lao we met were Filipinos and addressing them in Tagalog. The Lao would simply smile at her and nod in respect as if they considered her as their own mother or grandmother. There is then among the peoples of the different Asean countries a readiness to regard each other as family. Those physical similarities among the peoples are also found in the region’s rural landscapes. I suspect that there are common or related historical heritages among Asean countries that that our historians have yet to bring out fully to light.
The author is a retired Philippine ambassador and formerly assistant secretary for European Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs.