'I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety'.—European Council President Donald Tusk.
And yet despite his warnings, on Thursday 23 June the people of the United Kingdom did decide to leave the supranational institution of the European Union by a majority of 52%. The comment above, made by unelected European bureaucrat Donald Tusk, reveals two important ideas, both of which demonstrate that support from prominent Australian leaders—Including Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Bill Shorten—for the UK to remain in the EU were misplaced. Of course, their view is unsurprising; in turbulent times, stability is key. The UK’s membership in the EU made Australian lives easier, but not necessarily better. Indeed, on the issues of democratic accountability and intelligence sharing, Australia's interests will be better served by an independent UK and a reformed European Union.
EU & Democracy
The first idea highlighted by Tusk is the perversion of democratic values that has constrained, and now consumes, the EU. Here Tusk implies that should a majority of citizens vote to reject an unelected bureaucracy, they would somehow be responsible for the annihilation of Western civilisation. That the European Union is at all consistent with even some of the values of Western political civilization—democracy, elections and electoral accountability, freedom of speech, national sovereignty, transparency—is contestable to say the least. On a symbolic and historical cultural level, the decision to leave is wholly congruent with Australian values and vision.
The second is that his comments reflect a stubbornness to accept that the current trajectory of the European Union simply isn't working. The EU’s refusal to offer serious compromises on any of David Cameron's earlier reform proposals, as well as its attitudes towards the Greek financial crises, are evidence of this. It is this second point that has far greater significance to Australia's security concerns in Europe.
Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues that countries in political crises, such as the UK during Brexit, can lead to them taking their 'eyes off the game'. If anything, his comments are much more valid when applied to the EU. The ongoing refugee, security and economic crises have only led to piecemeal reform rather than the comprehensive reform required to prevent such crises from occurring in the first place. Just look at the potential Italian financial crisis. How many times will the EU have to see this play out before they fix the problem? In the case of Brexit, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests the UK still has its eyes firmly on the prize in terms of its economic security and minimising the initial aftershock damage of the vote.
As member of the Five-Eyes Intelligence Alliance and the Five Power Defence Arrangement (both of which Australia is a member) alongside its membership of the UN Security Council and NATO, British intelligence remains superior and more comprehensive than anything offered in the EU. The UK maintains the fourth largest military expenditure in the world and the largest army in the region. As such, it's absurd to assume that Europe would turn its back on the United Kingdom. One needs only to look to the Eastern European states such as Ukraine, under pressure from Russia and desperate for more support, as evidence of this. The deployment of forces to the Baltics by NATO just prior to the leave vote is indicative of a commitment that supersedes EU bureaucracy.
If anything, the UK leaving will be better for security in Europe and therefore Australia. The failings of the EU security apparatus are one such reason. This has been highlighted by a number of high profile British intelligence officials. Security intelligence is largely understood to work better on a bilateral level. This reflects the reality that the trust in the system is only as much as the least trustful member. It is for this reason that Paris and Belgium stepped up bilateral discussions following the Brussels attack, rather than taking it to the European level. As noted by the Quilliam Foundation, an expert think-tank in anti-terrorism policy, ‘The EU possesses few competences in counterterrorism and member states are left with the discretion to act, as they prefer’.
Meanwhile, the few European counterterrorism mechanisms that do exist are often restricted due to irregular and incoherent integration and cooperation, as well as a conflict of interest between members who want further integration in the field and those who perceive such integration as a deprivation of sovereignty.
With the United Kingdom remaining a critical regional power in economic, intelligence and military terms, alongside the dangerous failings of the EU intelligence apparatus, Britain's decision to leave the European Union may indeed be a positive one for Australia. Now Australia can successfully attempt to accommodate what were becoming two widely divergent entities. Australia will be free to further deepen its intrinsic relationship with the United Kingdom, as well as bring new enthusiasm to the EU-Australia relationship.
Underlying all of these security concerns, the fact remains that as much as Australian politicians, security officials and financial experts where aghast at the possibility of a Brexit, there is little evidence to suggest that any of them would join an organisation with the same level of democratic deficit as the European Union. The important security concerns aside, Australia’s commitment to democracy means that for this reason alone, it must be-Leave in Britain.
Will Flowers Comino is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: ArtsyBee (Pixapay: Creative Commons)