Brexit: Asean comparison puts choices in fresh light

British voters will go to the polls on Thursday to decide the future of their country's membership in the European Union (EU). Strictly speaking, the poll is not legally binding, but most observers agree that any attempts to defy the decision would be political suicide for a sitting government. In the final days, momentum appears to be swinging to the Brexit camp, which favours leaving the EU, according to several polls. However, a decisive number of voters are still undecided, and how those swing could determine the result in either direction.

It is a strange experience for a citizen of a small trade-based economy such as Singapore to see ardent Leave campaigners arguing against the EU. In our experience, our small economy has always been more like a strait jacket than a flexible asset because globally, the world looks ever more like a game of massive trading blocs and supersized economies. We talk about whether China is surpassing the United States, about the EU as the world's largest single market and wonder where Japan's lost years have gone. Indeed, Singapore has been at the forefront of Asean economic integration, in order to strengthen the broad competitiveness of the region, give the country a larger voice, and assert Asean's centrality in Asian and global affairs.

So why would Britain want to leave and become sandwiched between the massive poles of the US economy to its west and EU to the east? Brexit campaigners say it comes down to sovereignty. Their experience with European integration is markedly different from ours: about imposed rules, decisions being taken out of their hands (the touchstone being immigration, in this case), and unelected and seemingly unaccountable - at least to citizens - bureaucrats. Put simply, they want their country back. Simple messaging can go a long way.

On the Remain side, they have argued that Europe is stronger as a bloc, that Britain risks economic uncertainty and will lose its ability to have any say in Europe. Experts and academics largely agree. But this holds no sway with the Brexit camp because these elites are the ones who allegedly got Britain into trouble in the first place. Indeed, the dire warnings have been rebuffed as scaremongering and then promptly waved aside.

Neither sides' arguments are watertight. Whereas sovereignty is certainly a desirable good for nation-states sailing in a sea of globalisation, there is no guarantee that making oneself smaller through exit from a regional bloc would actually give back that sovereignty. On paper, yes, you would decide your own laws. But in practice, a lone economy would be at the mercy of the giants beside it. Britain may have a large economy, but it certainly isn't bigger than the EU's or the US', and it cannot escape geography: Those are its most important trading partners, and the ability to negotiate deals favourable to Britain will be harmed.

In effect, more regional agreements could be imposed on Britain if it goes alone.

Pro-Brexit supporters say leaving the EU would give Britain control over its laws, especially in immigration. However, on the economic front, the country may be subject to unfavourable deals from the much larger European bloc and the US.
Pro-Brexit supporters say leaving the EU would give Britain control over its laws, especially in immigration. However, on the economic front, the country may be subject to unfavourable deals from the much larger European bloc and the US. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

And for Remain, the use and abuse of statistics play out highly in these clouded times. Economists rely on a principle known as 'ceteris paribus' - all other things being held constant - in order to make predictions.


The only thing for sure is that Brexit will not hold other things constant: Virtually everything will be in play. This has been contested by the Brexit camp eagerly, and they have a point: Economic models may not be the most useful predictive tools when clearly so much is going to be up for renegotiation should Britain leave.

Asean members have always had a guarded view of ceding sovereignty to the regional grouping. Indeed, they have been cautious to a fault, having turned down the idea of a simple charter in 1974, and then taking 30 years to return to that idea at Vientiane. Rather, it has preferred informal arrangements, giving its members room to manoeuvre and flexibility to compromise. Where ambiguities have been allowed, this has made compliance more difficult: When faced with questions, what was agreed to be complied with may not be clear.

But the reverse model looks very much like the EU. Members put forward clear rules, evenly applied, and these would ensure a transparent compliance mechanism once the rules were agreed. The argument goes that whereas getting to a narrowly defined agreement may be tougher, the effect afterwards is much stronger. The EU bureaucrats had not counted on a separate effect, however. In having strongly enforced and uniformly applied rules, they appeared to be taking a step too far in alienating British citizens (and perhaps others, as Leave movements in the Netherlands and others watch this referendum closely). This is not to say well-enforced and uniformly applied rules are bad. They are in fact the bedrock of the rule of law.

But the question turns on this: If the rule of law is the prerogative of the regional grouping, what does that imply for states' sovereignties? And are people ready to accept these conclusions? Britain (and the EU) find out on Friday.

•The writer is a PhD candidate in International Relations at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. He formerly worked as an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit: Asean comparison puts choices in fresh light'. Print Edition | Subscribe