by Steve Howard – Jun 21 2016
Whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union, the Brexit issue has become an intense political battle before Thursday’s referendum. Already, the “Leave” campaigners are openly eyeing the head on the platter of Prime Minister David Cameron, who led his party to a clear election victory a year ago.
Viewed from London, the Leave campaign ranges from hysterical to hypocritical. Witness the brazen opportunism of Boris Johnson and his restive ilk, positioning for the spoils.
Viewed from Europe, or from further afield, in Australia, the whole Brexit shooting match looks rather weird, in much the same way that the US presidential election appears to have morphed into bad reality TV.
Rational analysis indicates Brexit would be horrible for the British, European and the global economies. Recent British Treasury analysis suggests it would lead to a 3.5 per cent drop in GDP and a 10 per cent drop in house prices. The economic and social knock-on effects will be considerable, at a time of continuing fragility in the world.
However, Britain standing alone, from a fractured Europe, can readily lead on to a busted world, with much wider implications than economics alone.
We risk forgetting, at our peril, the consequences of an atomised world of nation states. European history is littered with tragic lessons. Yes, peaceful co-existence is messy, slow and often boring. The alternative, of simplistic and populist slogans lacking actual solutions, is a slippery slope indeed.
For Australia, we have a sizeable investment in the European project and the shaping and influence role Britain must continue to play.
One hundred years on, the blood and bones of thousands of our finest young men lie together with those of British, French and German soldiers in the liberated fields of northern France and Belgium. We were there for Empire, sure, but we were also fighting, far away from home, for shared and universal ideals, for freedom and a belief in a positive and united future for Europe and the wider world. Many Australians have made lasting contributions to the fragile task of building a modern, peaceful Europe, through WWII and beyond.
A shared purpose
Twenty years ago, we had the good fortune to work with two of the Britain’s finest, the late Lords Colin Marshall and Leon Britain, as we made common cause in building what is now a remarkable strategic relationship between the European Union and Australia. They led an ongoing dialogue of private-sector and community leaders on both sides, also bringing governments along. Former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer boldly chose to lead our private-sector team and was joined by other greats, including Sir Gustav Nossal and Professor Geoffrey Blainey.
This pact was forged in London but executed in Brussels, giving genuine shape to how the EU saw and incorporated Australia and our Asia and Pacific view of the world from that moment on.
We shared a purpose then about shaping a European Union that was both advantageous to the UK as it was to its major allies. Other European greats, including Lord Chris Patten and Pascal Lamy, then cemented these gains with us, to ensure a global rather than inward-looking Europe.
Europe became a leader for open and engaged world trade and, at the same time, strengthened its commitment to development assistance in our Pacific neighbourhood.
It’s true there remains a global deficit of trust in the community, still overhanging from the excesses exposed in the global financial crisis, eight years on. Enduring practices of ethical behaviour by leaders in business and finance, to root out the “free-riders” and rebuild community trust, still remain to be encouraged and adopted.
At the same time, political and economic elites appear unable to communicate to their publics the need to manage the sophisticated power sharing necessary for a complex and overlapping world.
The Global Foundation is working to address these matters through our global governance program, which enables influential yet often disparate global leaders from business and elsewhere to align with ethical thinking and voices from the community. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and Bank of England governor Mark Carney are at the forefront of this enterprise.
This approach is the antithesis to binary choices and cheap headlines, and requires a careful and sustained effort from those with the gifts to exercise power.
Australia’s national interests are best served by having Britain remain as a pivotal influence for a stable and worldly Europe.
Steve Howard is the Secretary General of The Global Foundation (www.globalfoundation.org.au) and convened the EU-Australia Dialogue series from 1997 onwards.