‘Brexit’, the European Union, and the ‘Communication Deficit’: A Lesson for ASEAN

‘Brexit’ has created shockwaves through the European Union and called into question whether regional integration is sustainable, and ASEAN is watching developments closely. A key issue that ASEAN must learn from ‘Brexit’ is to address the ‘Communication Deficit’ by engaging in social integration.

The ‘Communication Deficit’ refers to the difficulty European institutions and actors have in disseminating information to the citizens of Europe. A lack of information often creates suspicion and skepticism, and undermines the trust society has in its institutions. Indeed, common criticisms of the European Union point to its elitist, highly bureaucratised and complex structures. Furthermore, communication administered by the European Union is of an academic nature consisting of technical jargon, reducing accessibility for the nonprofessional. From the British perspective, the elitist nature of the European Union has been popularised by leading Eurosceptic Nigel Farage, who in 2010 questioned the leadership credentials of the President of the European Council Herman Van Rumpy and the democratic structures of the European Union:  

“You have the charisma of a damp rag, and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk. And the question that I want to ask, that we’re all going to ask, is who are you? I’ve never heard of you, nobody in Europe has heard of you. I would like to ask you Mr. President, who voted for you?… And what mechanism do the peoples of Europe have to remove you? Is this European democracy?”

The notion of a ‘Communication Deficit’ in the European Union has been acknowledged for some time. In Bernd Spanier’s 2012 chapter entitled ‘Europe, anyone?’, he tracks the use of popular voting in individual member-states to decide on European wide issues in the period between the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 until the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. Poignantly, he argues that such voting systems are ‘problematic when member states which usually adhere to a representative model of democracy, suddenly resort to direct, plebiscitary models whenever fundamental decisions about Europe are to be taken.’

A key issue that Spanier highlights is that the lack of clarity of information regarding the inner workings of the European Union significantly raises the political transaction costs in seeking policy ratification at home. From a European perspective, this often leads to unfavourable outcomes, where political processes often distort the realities of European governance. Indeed, political game theorist highlights where ministers in council agree to unpopular measures, and then blame these unpopular measures on Brussels on their return home to retain their own political capital. Finally, the lack of pan-European media outlets to report on the European Union mean that national media outlets disseminate information to the public, creating space for a nationalist version of events.

The European Union has attempted to address this problem, though with little success. The Commission’s 2005 White Paper on Communication Policy proposed to move from ‘institution-centered’ to ‘citizen-centered’ communication. Furthermore, the European Parliament’s 2006 Herrero Report called for improving general knowledge regarding the European Union amongst its citizens. However, Britain’s referendum outcome in favour of ‘leave’, and in particular the character of the debates leading up to the referendum, show that the European Union has failed in addressing the ‘Communication Deficit’.

A key theme of the debates in the run up to the referendum was that traditional arguments based on economic reasoning did not have the desired persuasive effect of encouraging undecided voters to vote for ‘remain’. Indeed, one could argue that Chancellor George Osborne’s hyperbolic claim that households would be £4,300 worse off as a result of ‘Brexit’ served to alienate and create further distance between the voters and pro-European political classes.

Instead, arguments that created greater resonance amongst the electorate were those that focused on ‘values’ rather than economic reasoning, with Michael Gove’s now (in)famous quote “The British people have had enough of experts.” Political rhetoric instead focused on immigration, sovereign democratic values and competing visions of Britain’s sense of nationhood, and the ability of Britain to ‘take back control’ to model a future of its own making.

Why did the debates escalate into the less tangible issue of ‘values’, rather than focusing on the material issues at hand? One could argue that the ‘Communication Deficit’ means that European Citizens are largely unaware of how the European Union affects their daily lives. Indeed, surveys have frequently shown a significant proportion of the electorate were not entirely sure of what the EU is, does, or how it functions. What appears to be counter intuitive was that some of the regions that voted most heavily in favour of Britain leaving the European Union were those in receipt of the most EU development funding per person. Thus, the battleground became one of competing visions of what Britain’s underlying ‘values’ were, and whether or not they were compatible with the values of the European Union.

These constructivist elements of ‘values’ and the ‘Communication Deficit’ are especially pertinent in the British context. The rhetoric behind the founding of the European Union often highlights the efforts between France and Germany to establishing long lasting peace, which it has certainly been successful in this goal. These primary values that underlie the supranational institution of the EU, create value commitment for the French and German’s to the EU. However, this has not been the case for Britain. Indeed, rhetoric often focused on how Britain was an awkward participant of the EU, joining later only in 1973, retaining the pound in currency and not participating in the Schengen area. In light of this, British electorate felt they had less of a stake in the EU project. Thus in retrospect, Britain was especially susceptible to the negative effects of the ‘Communication Deficit’ and the failure of the European Union to communicate with the British electorate at the grassroots level has contributed to feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement.

This focus of the debate on ‘value’ rather than economic reasoning is often decried by those who campaigned to ‘remain’. However, in the complex processes of institution building, the importance of values should not be discounted. Institutionalists such as Douglas North argue that formal institutional design is the constitutive expression of the underlying values of a society, no matter how immaterial or intangible they are. One could argue that the ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union has led to a failure in constructing shared values, in that the British people had a stake in a union with Europe, thus contributing in favour of a ‘leave’ vote.

Lessons from ‘Brexit’ and the ‘Communication Deficit’ for ASEAN

One could argue that Brexit has legitimised ASEAN’s institutional form. Critics of ASEAN often decry ASEAN’s lack of supranational structure, whilst also criticising the norms of decision making by consensus, meaning that ASEAN can only move as fast as its slowest member. However, leading figures in ASEAN, such as former General Secretary Surin Pitsuwan, point to the high levels of diversity in ASEAN in terms of political forms, income levels and cultural differences that impede the pace of regionalism. Thus, ‘Brexit’ plays a part in legitimising the notion that there needs to be higher levels of common ground between member states when seeking closer cooperation. In light of this, ASEAN should take advantage of the slow top down regionalism process, and engage with the bottom up regionalisation process to construct common values and the idea of a South East Asian community in pursuit of regional integration.

Brexit has shown that integration based on economic and elite level political factors alone whilst ignoring social implications creates feelings of skepticism and disenfranchisement amongst the population. Similar to the European Union, ASEAN also carries an image of being an elitist political project, designed to expand market opportunities for big business whilst preventing information regarding decision-making processes being disseminated to the wider public. If ASEAN does seek closer cooperation with popular support, then it must address the ‘Communication Deficit’ in regards to regional integration. This issue is especially pertinent with democracies such as Indonesia. However, it is also highly relevant for the hybrid regimes in other ASEAN member states who derive legitimacy from economic wellbeing.

In light of this, the concepts of ‘Social Integration’, as proposed in the ASEAN Studies Center’s  monograph, ‘ASEAN in 2017: Regional Integration in an Age of Uncertainty’, is especially timely. ASEAN must create the idea and primary values of a Southeast Asian community with common goals in pursuing integration. Furthermore, this should not only be targeted at the elites in society, nor solely through universities and business associations. Communication must be extended to the grassroots level. This should be conducted through a more people-centered institutional form.

The European Union has acknowledged that it should move from ‘institution-centered’ to ‘citizen-centered’ communication. However, the failure of the European Union to do this effectively has led to catastrophic repercussions, with the disenfranchisement felt by large sections of British society resulting in a vote for leaving the European Union. As argued by Umar, ‘Brexit’ revealed the gap between the EU and the British people. Thus, if ASEAN is to avoid the fate of regional disintegration it too must learn from ‘Brexit’, and in seeking closer regional cooperation and integration it must address the ‘Communication Deficit’ and focus on a more people-centered and people-oriented institutional form.

Suraj Shah is a Visiting Fellow at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and a Graduate Student at King’s College University of London.