Din of jingoism on EU debate
Why Asean should guard against complacency
by Munir Majid in Kuala Lumpur
Wed 4 May 2016
The ‘quitter Brits’ wishing to leave the European Union betray a touch of the daredevil: a contrived Battle of Britain spirit. The UK can do anything, handle any challenge, leap any hurdle.
Level-headed arguments get lost in a din of jingoism. We Malaysians note with interest how, even with the UK’s sophisticated electorate, rival campaigners manipulate facts and figures, discrediting or cancelling out self-evident truths. We have enough of these ‘them against us’ tussles in Malaysia. The UK, too, in an existential contest, is evidently not immune to these disfiguring bouts of populism.
Emotive issues like sovereignty, immigration and Prime Minister David Cameron's modest windfall from his father's offshore company tend to move the masses, as do appeals to baser instincts. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and leading Brexiteer, makes rabble-rousing speeches filled with references to French knickers and empty-headed Romanians. The ‘remainers’ have a tougher task. It’s difficult to rouse the electorate with unemployment statistics.
Supporters of EU departure scorn government figures on the economic costs of leaving: the probable loss of 1m jobs, a 20% fall in inward investment, a big decline in living standards. They brandish exaggerated forecasts of Brexit benefits. But when the Treasury admits Britain is unlikely to keep immigration below 100,000 a year while remaining in the EU, the ‘leave’ campaign adopts the numbers as gospel truth and seizes on them with gusto.
The cost-benefit analysis, as well as the geopolitical arguments, resonate with sober voters. But many Brits are not particularly bothered about their country’s voice in the world.
President Barack Obama has underlined how Britain's weight would fall outside the EU, and why the European venture started: to stop wars between its big powers and unite the continent. Yet who among the hoi polloi is going to listen to him, when they are convinced Britain has lost sovereignty to bloody foreigners and unelected eurocrats? The scary thing is that even the better informed appear to hold a deep grudge against the EU.
Faced with this spectacle of Britain (and possibly other European countries too) tearing itself apart over European integration, Asians might be tempted to show some self-congratulation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (of which Malaysia is a member) has embarked on a much less ambitious journey over integration. Some Asean leaders, scanning Europe’s travails over an ever-closer union to which our region would never aspire, are tempted to say: I told you so.
The Asean economic community was pronounced in place at the end of last year; but this is indeed little more than a proclamation. The closest association it has with anything European is with Jean-Paul Sartre: the Asean community exists because its member states say it does. A milestone on a long road with many signposts, many of them ignored. A single currency is unthinkable. There is no love of open borders. Even attempting the European objective of a common fiscal discipline would be unthinkable.
However, Asean countries should guard against complacency. Overly slow progress towards greater integration could frustrate some members, just as going too fast has tripped up the EU. Some Asean members might seek economic and political satisfaction from closer association elsewhere, building bilateral or extra-regional relationships instead.
The EU’s huge problems have come out into the open. Asean's slow-motion integration will bring its own set of challenges – and they are not yet discernible. One day they will be, and the region should be ready.
Munir Majid is Chairman of Bank Muamalat Malaysia, Co-chair of the Asean Business Advisory Council, President of the Asean Business Club and Chairman of the Advisory Council of CIMB Asean Research Institute. This is No.48 in the series.
OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.
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