On 23 June 2016, the British people made a landmark decision to leave the European Union with the Leave vote winning by 52% to Remain’s 48%. The referendum had a turnout of 71.8%—the highest turnout in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election. Georgina Downer, Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, prepared a report to outline the liberal democratic case for Brexit, and what the decision means for Australia.
Not too long ago, the Oxford Dictionaries noted a newfangled noun, ‘Brexit’. Describing the potential departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Brexit has been the buzzword for the British media, the political plaything of British politicians, and will soon be the focus for Britons.
On 23 June, Britons were asked, Brexit or not?
The answer has seismic ramifications for the future of democracy, sovereignty and freedom.
No lesser advocates than Boris Johnson and the now former Prime Minister David Cameron have prosecuted the affirmative and negative cases for Brexit. Why then, should an upstart Australian enter the fray in the Brexit debate?
Because Brexit is not merely important for Britain; it is also fundamental for Australia.
Notwithstanding the potentially significant short-term transaction costs of Brexit, there is a strong case for Brexit, both for Britons and for Australians.
Brexit is about righting a wrong that was done to the British people. Britons have never given their consent to a political union with Europe. There is no social contract between Britons and the European superstate; rather, European bureaucrats have conquered Britain by stealth.
Britons have, without their consent, been roped into the EU and its web of institutions and extraordinary breadth of competencies including customs, competition, monetary policy for Eurozone members, fisheries, agriculture, trade, environment, consumer protection, immigration, social policy and employment, transport, trans-European networks, energy, the areas of freedom, security and justice, public health, culture, tourism, education, and youth. The EU has its own foreign minister with embassies around the world, and is developing its own defence policy, with plans for a European Army down the track if Germany gets its way.
In an understated way so typically British, the former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 said Britons ‘feel that the EU is heading in a direction that they never signed up to’.
Now, faced with the opportunity to express their views about Brexit, Britons have had a choice. The case for Brexit is principally a case for reasserting the primacy of the great British institutions of British parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of British law and an independent British judiciary, small government, and economic liberalism. Remaining part of the EU will condemn Britain to further integration into what has become an anti-democratic and illiberal federation.
Brexit is a clarion call against statism and big government, a reclaiming of the British nation state and its centuries-old institutions, a win for democracy over bureaucracy, and a reassertion of sovereignty. It should, after all, be for the British people to decide whether they want small or big government, high taxes or low, strong borders or weak, high immigration or low. It should be the British who have the final say over whether their government has overstretched into people’s freedoms, not European courts, applying European laws.
In addition to encroaching on British parliamentary democracy, the British judiciary and the British system of common law, Europe has failed to deliver on its promised prosperity with a near-decade long crisis in the Eurozone and sluggish economic growth.
Instead, European red tape abounds, stifling growth and job creation. Over fifty per cent of UK legislation is now derived from EU law, laws which Britain must apply and over which it does not have a veto. European courts dictate who Britain can deport. EU citizens and their families can live and work freely in Britain, without limitation. Britain’s net contribution to the EU is in the order of £10 billion which angers Britons who query what benefit they get from such a significant investment of taxpayer funds.
The Remain camp in Britain invoked the good that Europe has done in bringing peace to the continent, and the dangers to regional and global peace that Brexit will bring. But is this really the case?
It is NATO, led by the United States of America, and not the EU, that has underwritten post-war peace in Europe and beyond. As a 28 member bloc, the EU is simply unable to make effective decisions when confronted with important and difficult issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the flood of migrants from the Middle East.
It is incredibly difficult to get 28 countries to agree to any policy, and when it does, it is very often weak and incredibly compromised—a policy of the lowest common denominator.
If Britain continued to subject itself to a process of European decision-making, then its positions would by definition be diluted. That doesn’t make Britain stronger in unity with Europe. It makes Britain weaker.
Beyond Britain, there is no doubt that this decision made on 23 June will be felt globally, including in Australia. The case for Brexit remained strong on the international stage. Freed from the EU, Britain could reassert its global leadership position as an independent liberal democracy.
Brexit has tangible benefits for Australian international relations. Beginning with a free trade deal with Australia which Britain couldn’t negotiate independently of the EU, the benefits will be considerable for Australian and British exporters alike.
Moreover, Brexit will restore for Australia an independent peer and sibling sharing many of the same values and systems, including parliamentary democracy and classical liberal values, as well as buttressing Australia’s interests in a range of bilateral and multilateral issues including defence and trade. Indeed, Australia, as a former British colony, has inherited and developed the very best of Britain: the English language, British institutions, the values of Western Civilization—the rule of law, personal liberty and representative government—and the common law. The decline of the British nation state and the sovereignty of its Parliament under EU overlords should be something that we, in Australia, mourn.
Britain’s freedom and sovereignty won’t be the sacrificial lamb for the preservation of the EU as it is and will become. Let Britain’s departure be a catalyst for reform of the EU and a reclaiming of democracy, sovereignty and individual freedoms. Let it also be a reminder to Australia of the importance of liberal values for a successful and prosperous nation state.
UNDERMINING BRITISH DEMOCRACY AND SOVEREIGNTY
Britain’s parliament, Westminster, is the birthplace of liberal democracy. Central to the success of British democracy is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. It is Britain’s elected representatives (members of parliament) who have the supreme authority to create or end any law. And it is British citizens, through electing their representatives, who are empowered to determine how their country is governed and the laws of the land. This accountability is key to the long term success of liberal democracy in Britain and throughout the world.
Britain’s membership of the EU, however, eroded parliamentary sovereignty and British democracy. Membership of the EU means Britain is bound by EU law, and where EU law and British law are inconsistent, EU law overrides British law. This arrangement is similar to that of federations like Australia, the United States and Canada, where federal (or Commonwealth) law overrides state laws to the extent that they are inconsistent. Like Australia’s federal system, the EU’s powers or competences are divided between those over which it has exclusive competence, shared competence, and then competence to support or coordinate actions and policies.
The result is that now between 50 to 60 per cent of laws in Britain come from the EU.
For an Australian, this shift of power away from Westminster to Brussels without a clear mandate from the British public is astounding. The Australian Federation only materialised after significant political and public debate, compromise between the states and their ultimate agreement to transfer some power to Canberra.
BREXIT’S BENEFITS FOR AUSTRALIA
Britain’s decision on its EU membership will be felt globally, but especially in Australia where we share such close ties of history, institutions, traditions and values. The potential for mutual benefits from a free trade deal, plus improved freedom of movement between our two countries will refresh our bilateral ties. But we must also celebrate the potential of a Britain free of the shackles of the EU to work together with Australia in defence of liberal democratic values in international affairs.
While the EU and Australia launched FTA negotiations in 2015, unsurprisingly the negotiations with the 28-member bloc have already come to a halt in the face of the protest of one—an Italian request that Australia scrap anti-dumping duties on canned tomatoes. How many years, if ever, this issue will take to clear up is anyone’s guess and means British and Australian exporters miss out on the mutual benefits of free trade.
If Britain undertakes bilateral FTA negotiations with Australia, it is entirely possible this could be concluded in a short time, especially given the strong and deep history of Anglo-Australian trade since Australian settlement in 1788. For Australia, there would be significant opportunities for our high quality agriculture exports in the UK market.
Australia’s recent successful bilateral negotiations with Korea, Japan and China, among others, demonstrate that bilateral negotiations between single nation states can be more efficient and effective at delivering results for Australian exporters and lowering tariff barriers.
CONTINUED DIMINUTION IN FREEDOM OF ANGLO-AUSTRALIAN MOVEMENT
Since 2008 the number of Australians working in the UK has fallen by 40 per cent. The traditional rite of passage for young Australians to work in the UK has been narrowed. The reason is the EU. Britain’s loss of control over the level of EU migration forced the nation to clamp down on non-EU migration. David Cameron promised to reduce the number of migrants to Britain but his only solution was to cut down on non-EU migration. This change has been deeply felt by Australians.
From 2016, most non-EU workers (including Australians) must earn at least £35,000 to settle in the UK for longer than six years. Further, the inflexibility of British visa conditions means that Australians working in Britain must return to Australia and reapply for a working visa if they want to change employers. A disappointing reception from the country of our Head of State.
Brexit means Anglo-Australian ties through migration, temporary and permanent, could continue and strengthen, rather than diminish. Future generations of Australians could appreciate the closeness of traditions, values and history, as well as deepen the commercial and cultural relations between our two countries.