Reuven Brenner | US election and UK referendum -- similarities and the big difference: Brenner

US election and UK referendum — similarities and the big difference: Brenner

March 1, 2016 9:25 AM (UTC+8)

 

What are the main issues that David Cameron negotiated with the EU and put up for the coming referendum?

They are roughly the same issues that appear at the top of the electorate worries in the United States too: a drastically expanded unaccountable bureaucracy; level of welfare benefits and the elimination of programs (Obamacare in the US, others in the UK); regulatory reform, and last but not least, security and migration, and limiting migrants’ benefits. Whereas the topics are similar, there is a sharp contrast in the level of debates between the articulate Parliamentary ones in the UK and the mudslinging and the shenanigans in the US.

David Cameron
David Cameron

Whether one agrees or disagrees with David Cameron’s promoting the deal or with opponents led by Boris Johnson, mayor of London, whose main reservation is that the UK could get more concessions from Bruxelles, the issues are sharp and clear, even if expressed in different terms than in the US.  Consider a simple example: the infamous wall along the US/Mexican borders that Mr. Trump is advocating. Nobody noticed in the furious debate that the UK has already established such a “wall” – and France and Belgium have been paying for it.

France isolated the thousands of migrants in Calais, and Belgians isolated other migrants moving toward Belgian ports trying to cross the channel with new border controls – walls by name even if not set in concrete, and paid by French and Belgian taxpayers. So Mr. Trump’s suggestion is not unprecedented.  The English Channel may appear as a solid natural barrier, but it is obviously not enough to keep modern invaders out.

I have no idea how exactly Mr. Trump intends to negotiate the deal he has in mind. He would be foolish to reveal his cards now, but there is little doubt that the US has enough leverage to apply it – and for Mexico to benefit from it. According to estimates just drug trade between Mexico/Columbia and the US is estimated to be between $18 and $39 billion in sales per year. Even if one takes the lowest figure, and without counting the impact on corruption of police, government, violence of gangs and murders, there is enough scope for negotiation because of this one item, and one that a honest Mexican government partner would have incentives to collaborate with and bear the $10 billion dollar expense. After all, it could bring to Mexico far more benefits. Would better Mexican governance mitigate migration to the US too?  Most likely. So there are times when “walls” appear a win-win for law-obeying citizens on both sides of a wall – for a while anyway.

While the above migration debate has been raging in the US and Europe, Australian highest court decided that it was legal for Australia to keep detention centers in the isolated island of Nauru, and process asylum seekers there – before they can set foot on Australian soil, and also send to Nauru those who are already on its soil. Sounds again a bit like Mr. Trump’s suggestion to deal with those illegally in the US, although obviously in much bigger numbers. Once again, the idea itself of submitting asylum seekers and migrants to the rule of law has precedents.

It is nice to claim being humanitarian, but with about 5.5 billion people from the 7 billion populating the planet being poor, many living in corrupt countries and warzones – just how “humanitarian” can western countries be? Take Canada and Australia, two vast, pretty empty countries, the first with 35 and the other with 25 million population – just how many migrants per year can they absorb – based on an abstract humanitarian principle – while sustaining their institutions? One million per year? 8 millions over three years?

Yes, about 30 years ago, Israel got a roughly 25% addition to its population within three years (1 million Russian immigrants), and has done pretty well since. But these were all Jews, and some 30% of them were scientists, engineers, technicians. Not the type of migration in the cards now. If anything, the present debates in the UK, Europe, Australia and the US bring attention to the fact that wishy-washy bleeding-heart terminologies and philosophizing may serve for nice subsidized Ivory Tower debates, but are useless when having to solve concrete problems.

Indeed, one of the items in the UK referendum, where David Cameron won with Bruxelles was on matters of security. His platform promised “To seek increased powers to bolster UK defenses to stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.” And he got these powers: The deal allows the UK specifically to take “necessary restrictive measures” against individuals deemed to represent “a genuine and serious threat” to public safety, even if they do not pose an “imminent” threat to security. Taking a suspect’s “past conduct” into account could be sufficient grounds to act.”

On welfare benefits to migrants, Cameron’s government pledge was “that EU migrants who want to claim tax credit and child benefits must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.” And he got this too from the EU, among others.

And now we come to one significant difference between the UK and the US, namely the reliance on referendum – one of basic institutions of “direct democracy” (having the right to “initiatives” being another. There are more – as the unique direct democracy in the world – Switzerland can attest – but I shall not deal with them here). Imagine if instead of voting on package deals offered by Democrats and Republicans, or Conservatives of different dispositions in the UK, or their Labor Party, people could vote on each major item separately. This is what Switzerland has done over the years, when negotiating with the EU.

Two years ago Swiss voters, concerned about rising immigration, supported to limit the number of workers coming in from the EU. In response, Bruxelles is requiring the Swiss to negotiate a number of deals. How much power Bruxelles will have after Brexit and referenda across European countries rejecting Bruxelles’ right to allocate migrants across Europe, we shall soon know. It is clear though that the Swiss managed their own affairs pretty well – and much better than rest of Europe by not being part of the EU and by relying on their unique direct democracy.

But do not hold your breath that countries around the world would rush to emulate such system of government: It drastically diminishes the power of politicians. They will not pull out the carpets from other feet. Only a perhaps deeper crisis than the West faced in 2007, or may be facing if UK exits, or another debt crisis takes place, there is chance for such radical shift.  In politics, as in business and as in private life – bankruptcy, defaults, threats of being leapfrogged are the Mothers on Invention.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.  Analyses of “direct democracy” appear in his Labyrinths of Prosperity (1994) and Force of Finance (2002).

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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