#Brexit: Should ASEAN Adopt or Not Adopt A Direct Voting?

By Dioputra Ilham | 12 Jul 2016
Political | 0 Participant(s) | 0 Response(s) | 1333 Views

After the “Leave” camp won by 52%-48%, the Brits were madly searching for “What is the EU?” in Google which came as the second most searched term. The EU is short for the European Union, a very complex and large organization. The EU began its life with the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community. European leaders wanted to prevent a repeat of the world wars by giving European powers --- especially France and (West) Germany) --- shared economic and political institutions. This gave way to the European Economic Community in 1967, and ultimately European Union after 1993’s Maastricht Treaty. Today, the EU includes a political and economic bureaucracy, based in Brussles, that shapes and controls many aspects of European political life. The EU has its own currency, the euro. It has a travel agreement, called Schengen, which makes most of the EU function as one giant country when it comes to travel and migration.

The British (or the people of the Great Britain or also called the United Kingdom) have long been known its arms-length attitude to the EU. Why? Because it is an island nation. A British historian says “we lived in splendid isolation, protected by the Navy and the Empire, “Now, of course, that period of isolation has long gone, but perhaps it still retains some of its impact upon the British people, who do not want ties with the Continent.” The Great Britain has always been inconsistent, showing eagerness to join, but ended in the sidelines.  In 1951, when the European Coal and Steel Community were forged, Britain declined an invitation to join the six founding nations. In 1961, Britain applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC), only for the entry to be vetoed –twice- by French President Charles de Gaulle. He accused Britain of a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction, and being more interested in links with the US. Eventually, Britain joined EEC in 1973 after de Gaulle had left office. When membership was put to a referendum in 1975, it had the support of Britain’s three main parties and all its national newspapers. The result was resounding --- with more than 67% voting in favour. But that did not end the debate. There was no immediate economic betterment --- in fact strikes and power cuts continued, and rising oil prices caused double-digit inflation.

“Europe has been a toxic issue in British politics,” Prof Bogdanor says, not just because it caused division between parties, “but also deep divisions within the parties”.

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher basically rejected the union of Britain to the European Community (which later became the EU in 1993), because of less agricultural subsidies Britain received compared to some other countries, notably France. More importantly, Thatcher rejected out rightly “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.

The most important feature of the EU is a direct democracy, with the name “referendum”, which means that certain important decisions will have to be voted directly by the citizens. The EU has been championing this model for a long time. Simply put, decisions are not simply made the Parliament, but the people/citizen has the final and strongest say, by simple majority. Whether Britain remains and leaves the EU is one of the decisions subjected to a referendum, and hence the term #Brexit.

Now we turn our page to South East Asia region, where an organization of EU’s nature by the name the Association of South East Asia Nations (or ASEAN) exists. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Bangkok Declaration with Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand as the Founding Fathers. It was an effort to keep the Cold War impacts out of South East Asia. Some said ASEAN was the deceased Soeharto’s baby. In his attempt not to be dragged into the Cold War, some ASEAN leaders saw the urgent need to shield themselves using a unified platform. As time passed, members of ASEAN became more integrated in other areas, particularly economic and security.

Despite all the cultural, historical, and other differences ASEAN and the EU, one can draw at least one common denominator, i.e. how much is the people involved in the decision making process. Historically, ASEAN has always been a political platform and hence decision making is seemingly non-transparent, with very few people knowing what ASEAN is and how it affects their day-to-day lives (exactly the problem in EU). But what is worse is that ASEAN is represented by respected ministries (economic issues by economics ministers) in a seemingly “meet and greet” fashion meetings, with non-binding outcomes. It is almost as if the decision (if any) is made by only by those in power in an elite circle, behind a closed door, without any public consultation mechanism. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

Let’s go to the point of discussion here. Imagine you were the leaders of either EU or ASEAN. These are the thoughts running in your head: Should complex decisions, concerning state-to-state relations, be decided by elites and experts, or should some be left to the public through a referendum?

One consideration for the “elites and experts” approach is it takes a great understanding of the system or global view to even begin to understand what the problem is, let alone to find a solution. How many people understand the concept of economic integration, the difference between free trade area and custom union? Or how a single currency for ASEAN or EU affects the fiscal and hence monetary policy? Who understands the governance system in a form of a super-state like the EU, who gets to say what? Very few. And the process to educate the masses is a herculean task. Making a good decision depends on how much relevant information we know. The less information we have, the worse is the decision. Can we trust the public, through referendum, to choose what is best for them?

On the contrary, the consideration for the “people” approach is who else is most affected by the decision made in such a high level? The decisions made in a super-state level affect people’s lives, day-to-day. We start seeing more immigrants coming in, creating a spatial discomfort, cultural discord, and economic hardship (less jobs). We see more local agricultural farms closed down, more foreign products, and family members moved away from their core families to find a living source. Simply put, big changes are happening when there is a decision made in that level. It is a sheer sensibility to have the people/citizen to vote directly on those issues, through a referendum.

What do you think? From #Brexit event, Should ASEAN adopt the “elites and experts” or the “people” approach? Think of whether decision is best left to the guys who know it best or the guys who are most affected by it.