Australia isn't immune to the Brexit debate

Bookmark and Share Economics & Deregulation | Chris Berg
The Drum 14th June, 2016

It is not always a good idea to draw an opinion on the domestic affairs of other countries. But in the case of the upcoming British referendum on June 23 to withdraw from the European Union, Australians should be paying close attention.

The pathologies that have led to the Brexit vote are not unique to Europe - there are deep lessons for Australian policymakers too.

At its heart Brexit is a contest between technocracy, red tape and administrative power on the one side, and democracy and sovereignty on the other. In other words, what we see in the byzantine bureaucracies and agencies of the EU is an extreme form of trends that are common across all Western liberal democracies.

Polling this weekend showed the vote to withdraw from the EU has a 10-point lead over the vote to Remain, with 55 per cent of respondents supporting Leave.

This finding is important not just because of what it suggests about the outcome of the vote. The received wisdom has been that voters primarily concerned about immigration - the free movement of people across Europe has never been more controversial than after the Syrian refugee crisis - would vote Leave. Voters primarily concerned about the economy would vote Remain.

Modelling done by the UK Treasury has claimed that British households would be £4,300 worse off in 2030 if the country had left the EU than if it had stayed. This result is derived from the apparent decline in openness to trade and foreign investment that withdrawing from the EU might bring.

But the weekend's polling shows that the Leave argument is making significant inroads into the group of voters who see the economy as paramount.

As Dan Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament and supporter of Brexit has pointed out, catastrophic claims about the decline of trade and openness resulting from a Leave vote are nonsense. Withdrawal will not be instantaneous following a successful referendum. Rather, the referendum is a mandate for the British government to negotiate withdrawal; to forge new trade agreements and arrangements while simultaneously stepping back from Europe-wide ones.

There are two distinct visions of European unity. One has perversely flourished, and the other has become distorted beyond recognition. The first is the dream of a government of Europe - a transnational European equivalent of the bureaucracies and political institutions that run national governments.

This first project, it must be said, has been an enormous success. The EU has a parliament, courts, a monetary system, and an enormous administration. One 2008 estimate of the number of bureaucrats working in EU institutions - the EU itself is cagey on its total staff - came to 170,000. This is more than the British army.

But it's one thing to create a government, it's another to create a responsible, legitimate government. Even the EU acknowledges that it suffers from a perceived democratic deficit - that the citizens of Europe do not feel they are able to reject the administrations and policies that rule them.

While the European Parliament is an elected body, the six other key European institutions are not.

The European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Central Bank are all at one or more steps removed from popular control.

In this sense EU institutions are the natural end point of a trend that affects Australian administration as well - the spread of administrative and regulatory independence designed to keep politics out of policymaking. But this comes at the expense of democratic control.

The second vision of European unity was as a free trade bloc. The 1957 Treaty of Rome conceived of Europe in distinctly classical liberal terms, allowing goods, services, capital and labour to move across borders. This was an enormous achievement at the time, given the economic source of so much intra-European antagonism.

The perversion of the ideal of European free trade occurred with the development of the common market. Properly understood, a country with its markets open to free trade is still able to write its own rules about the conditions in which goods and services are produced and sold within the borders of that country. However, the European common market developed in such a way that widened its focus to the regulatory constructs within each country that make it harder to sell (for instance) an Italian product produced according to Italian standards in France, where French standards apply.

The common market aimed to eliminate these differences. Unfortunately it did so by imposing pan-European regulatory requirements across the whole continent. Without the constraints provided by democratic institutions, the EU has been an enormous source of new regulation and red tape - what is understood by European citizens as EU meddling and domestic interference.

One think tank calculated that since 1957 the EU had passed and incredible 666,879 pages of law. In some states up to 84 per cent of national legislation involves the implementation of new and adjusted EU rules. Analysis based on the British government's own regulatory impact statements show that red tape coming from Europe costs the British economy at least £33 billion (AUD $63 billion) a year.

The European Union represents the worst inclinations of modern government - heavily bureaucratic, deliberately undemocratic, meddling and interventionist. Australian policymakers should not imagine that British discontent with Brussels has no lessons for them.