With the consequences becoming clearer, the Brexit brain-buster must be sewing the seeds of doubt among some monarchist Australians, including those former Prime Ministers who variously backed and congratulated the Brits for choosing to go it alone in last year’s Brexit referendum.
Momentarily, Trump trumped Brexit, the volcanic impact of his election making the British decision to leave the European Union feel like a detail. But launching the two-year departure process has sheeted home how Trump can be booted out at the ballot box in four years, his wings clipped at American midterm elections in two, while Brexit is a semi-permanent engagement, kicking into touch 44 years of political and economic integration.
Brexit removes from the European table one of the world’s guiding-light democracies, the nation that gave us John Maynard Keynes and Lord Beveridge (pride of the left), Margaret Thatcher (pride of the right) and George Orwell (proudly claimed by both left and right). In their place, we get Theresa May, a decent and competent person no doubt, but who’s recent illiberal twist is a little perplexing: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world,” she told Tory party conference, “you are a citizen of nowhere”. As travel-addicted, polyglot Australians, that could be read as a tilt against most of us, no?
More seriously, Brexit enacts populism, protectionism, nationalism and the new era of de-globalising championed by Donald Trump. As well as cocking a snook at the kind of multicultural openness that has been Australia’s international calling card since the foresight of two other former PMs, Whitlam and Fraser (though the disgrace of Manus Island and Nauru has lately dragged our name through the mud: “the most sinister exercise in cruelty in the world’s refugee crisis”, said The New York Times).
Brexit means Australia loses liberal trade’s most ardent representative from inside the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, while leaving — making more powerful, in fact — a number of countries whose interests are generally less close to Australia’s.
Britain’s departure may eventually bridge the ravine-like barriers that currently divide Germany and France — on defence, refugees and EU border control — creating a Europe that is more federalist, politically integrated and less economically liberal. In other words: less like the Europe Australian policy-makers actually want. There are also the important people-to-people questions of what happens to Australians living in Europe on British passports? And who to talk to for Australian diplomacy and trade? With France in economic decline, Canberra will stand in the ever-lengthening queue of non-EU capitals for whom Berlin is first European interlocutor.
Yet things could be worse for Australia, we could be Britain. Aside from fractured “Team GB” being led by an unelected PM in an extremely complex negotiation for an objective she was against (though not to the extent the Scots were against it) — Mrs May was a discreet “Remainer” — there’s the humour of Britain “going global” with a back-to-the future strategy that again puts the Commonwealth front and centre. One thinks of Patrick White satirising the old Anglo Australia of salmon loaf, boiled mutton flaps, and macaroni pudding with a pinch of nutmeg for dinner.
Britain entered the EU for the common market, which it got, wanted exemption from both the passport-free Schengen Zone and single currency, which it was granted, while managing to host European trading in that self same currency for the creation of about 800,000 high value-added jobs. Now that is deal-making for the envy of Donald Trump. You can understand why the French won’t be entirely convinced that the Brits are going until they’ve actually gone.
If far right Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election against the odds à la Trump, Britain would in a limited sense have lost less, because her elevation would likely sound the death knell for the EU. Does Europe “risk dying” in the face of populism’s rise, as Pope Francis described it? Well, Le Pen’s election would mean a Franco-German divorce overnight, put the euro at dire risk and quite possibly engender a major outbreak of violence in France — already under a state of emergency. Yet Europe is far from Australia, retort the naysayers, our focus has long been in Asia — where Britain will soon be a newly ardent competitor.
Rampant discontent, not to say spreading nationalisms across Europe after 1914, shattered the millennial optimism born of the machine, the dynamic of the so-called second industrial revolution, and played a major role in launching a cycle of industrial warfare that by the end of WWI, had buried more than 46,300 Australians in the churned clay mud of the Western Front. Is to make such an historical analogy, to draw a long bow? Perhaps.
But the footnote is that growing discontent in France came close to making Madame Le Pen, who managed a staggering 40 per cent of the first-round vote, Regional Council president of Picardy Nord-Pas-de-Calais in administrative elections in 2015. This is the “Australian France”, home to places like Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt, where thousands of Australians died in WWI and where many will gather again for Anzac Day ceremonies this year. The point is that now, as then, the world’s big developments, and its battles, they have a habit of pushing through the cracks, of getting in under the door. They are for all of us.
* Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist based in Munich. He is a former Australian Embassy press attaché in Paris.