I was born in England (in glorious carpet-making Kidderminster, birthplace to former Prime Minister Walter Nash, and home to the mighty Kidderminster Harriers FC). I came to Wellington when I was ten, and apart from a very brief, foolish and extremely expensive wager against the All Blacks at Eastern Hutt Primary School in Standard Four, New Zealand has had my loyalty. My dad is a Scot, my mum is a Kiwi, but despite growing up on the other side of the world, I have always retained my deep-seated, innate fondness for Britain. I’ve been back many times and I’ve always thought of the UK as a very familiar but still slightly foreign country. Not home, but perhaps the next best thing. Put it this way: I unhesitatingly cheer for the All Blacks and the Blackcaps against all comers, but every four years some cruel part of my DNA still hopes against hope that the English football team can live up to their tabloid hype and win the World Cup. I'm still trying to find some way to get that fixed and in the meantime to get excited about Aston Villa’s away fixtures next season.
So it’s as both a British citizen and a New Zealander that I feel so deeply disappointed and profoundly saddened by today's EU referendum vote. Let's be honest: in political science we almost certainly overdo the earthquake metaphors, but this really does feels like a moment when tectonic plates are shifting. Events are fast moving, things are really complicated and hard to interpret. At this stage it’s hard to know quite what has driven the ‘Leave’ vote over the line (is it fears of ‘rampant’ immigration? Deep-seated frustration with elites? The EU’s democracy deficit? Disillusion with globalization and deeper economic integration?). Plenty of people who seemed to be doing OK out of closer integration also voted LEAVE. It’s difficult to know what this means for the British, European or world economies, but it’s hard to see any particularly happy news. It’s also hard to know what it means for EU-like regional integration projects the world over (although no-one’s tried to leave ASEAN yet, at least as far as I know).
But there are three things that strike me about this vote, as I write (not too long after the result), late on a Friday night.
Second, it’s hard not to think this has significance beyond Britain or Europe; that it says something about the state of the liberal world order and notions of ‘the West’ that we have largely taken for granted for the last four decades. Europe will be a much weaker actor in world politics because of this and even if you don’t believe the predictions of the huge costs to the British economy, it’s certain that the United Kingdom is going to be more inward-looking and consumed with its own affairs (like actually staying united) for many years to come. President Obama lobbied for ‘remain’ for a reason and this decision will not be welcome in Washington.
Third, from a New Zealand perspective, it’s striking how unsettling and alarming this seems, especially considering we had precisely the same reaction when Britain decided to join the European Economic Community 43 years ago. Obviously, because our export markets are more diverse today, we are much less economically vulnerable than we were in 1973. I have no doubt that the mandarins in MFAT have been preparing for precisely just this kind of scenario, and will have strategies in place, particularly around our special trade quotas and our arguments for future FTAs in Europe.
But with Brexit there are much bigger issues than trade at play. Although most of New Zealand’s foreign policy is commercial, our broader foreign policy settings, as this speech by John Key suggests, are anchored in a commitment to being an open, outward-looking country that believes in the idea that all nations do better when they seek to work together. For all our faults, we still think it something of a "badge of honour" when we record more inward migration than people leaving. We welcome foreign investment, celebrate multiculturalism and actively seek closer economic integration with others. With the current dire state of American politics, appalling decisions around immigration in Australia and now Brexit, it’s hard not to feel that we are part of a shrinking number of countries where a majority believes that's the best way to go. And that is deeply worrying.
David Capie is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be contacted at: email@example.com