Brexit is likely to be one of the greatest political upheavals of our time. For the first time in history, a country, the United Kingdom, voted to leave the European Union (EU). The referendum on the 23rd of June uncovered a great deal of divisions within the UK. The country appears to be extremely fragmented. The younger voters mainly chose to remain in the EU, while the elderly voted out. The rural areas were extensively keen on Brexit; the majority of the cities on the other hand were pro-EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, England and Wales voted to leave.

Studies are still ongoing to figure out the precise reasons for this unprecedented decision. The fallout has been enormous, but to find out why it happened we have to focus on multiple factors.

The wave of nationalism which has wound up many European countries and many other parts of the world could have affected Britain in the run up to the EU referendum. Nationalists’ votes which were not very effective in May 2015 General Elections, due to the British first-past-the-post electoral system, could have played a much bigger role in the EU referendum, where every vote counted. This wave of nationalism present in many countries like America with Donald Trump, in France with Marine Le Pen, in Italy with Matteo Salvini, in the UK with Nigel Farage, has deep roots in many countries. A great deal of them are characterised by at least one nationalist party.

A multitude of determinants contributes to the success of nationalist parties nowadays. Firstly, the historical conditions of our time, as we are witnessing one of the greatest refugee crises in history. In 2015, according to IOM and UNHCR, one million refugees arrived in Europe due to the Syrian civil war and other upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa region. Nationalists have often accused these refugees of being involved in terrorist activities, although there has not been solid proof on this. In spite of data showing that migrants are beneficial for the host country’s GDP, they continued to be blamed for all kinds of reasons, including for being a threat to national security.

Secondly, nationalism has also thrived as a result of the inability of European and other international institutions to deal with the side effects of the globalization they so grandly promote. There has never been a substantive plan aimed at reintegrating in the work market those who lost their jobs as a result of the global capitalist system. To these disenfranchised people, left on the sidelines of their societies by globalisation, the ideals of nationalism became particularly appealing. Globalization and governments has also failed at helping and preparing different communities, especially migrant ones brought in for economic reasons, to integrate socially. This created an unchecked gap in society that has been gradually and silently getting wider. It is not uncommon for the locals around Britain to lash out racial slurs to those of Eastern European background, and they have been further emboldened to do so following the EU referendum.

Furthermore, ignorance seemed to play a key role in Brexit. Many pro-Brexit voters went to the ballot box without knowing what the EU actually is and what this institution does for UK, especially in the most deprived areas.  Counties like Cornwall have hugely benefitted from the EU cohesion fund, which aids areas with economic indicators below the national average. Yet Cornwall voted overwhelmingly to leave. The EU has been the greatest contributor to agriculture in the UK, yet many rural counties focused on agriculture voted to leave as well. It did not help either when most British citizens grow up knowing very little of the role and functions of the EU, with their only interaction with it being if they had businesses or travelled in Europe. This lack of awareness contributed towards a misleading opinion that the EU is a purely technocratic institution perched on an ivory tower.

Politicians like UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage exploited this through further lies and deception to the public. One for example was his claim, later advertised on a bus promoting for Brexit, that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week from being sent to Brussels and instead be reinvested on the National Health Service (NHS). This was found to be false as the amount was only £190 million a week and it could not be guaranteed for that amount to be used for the NHS.

Brexit was a perfect storm with the combination of nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments and ignorance towards the EU. All of this did not come suddenly either. They were gradual processes, slowly building up this pent-up frustration that led into a single, emotionally-charged decision to take the UK out of the EU.

Brexit and ASEAN, not totally unrelated

Regarding ASEAN, it aims to facilitate the socio-economic integration of its member states through the promotion, among other things, of free movement of people and goods in a way which is similar to the EU’s approach with its own member states. The occurrence of a Brexit in the Southeast Asian region and within the context of ASEAN appears extremely unlikely. Exiting an institution necessitates firstly the creation of an institution and ASEAN is not an institution in the same way as the EU is. ASEAN does not have its own parliament and does not enforce laws on its member states; it is essentially a set of formal arrangements made by the leaders of its ten member states. Nonetheless, Brexit may teach ASEAN three important and intertwined lessons.

With growing integration among its member states especially following the development of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), ASEAN may soon assume an institutional power structure similar to the EU. Brexit has showed to ASEAN leaders the importance of rendering future ASEAN institutions people- centred. This will prevent a sentiment of disenfranchisement and aversion to ASEAN from spreading in the Southeast Asia region. The EU leaders seem to have failed to construct institutions that focused on the people and always used a top-down approach. Because of this, the EU institutions alienated a great deal of Britons, culminating in Brexit.

Secondly, in order to create people-centred institutions, it is imperative to raise the awareness of what ASEAN is and what it does, in order to gain people’s active engagement in ASEAN initiatives. Failing to do so will replicate in Southeast Asia the same scenes seen in Britain last June. Raising awareness of ASEAN, clarifying to people in the region its ideals, structures and positive impact on the region will help prevent anti-ASEAN feelings from spreading within the least-developed ASEAN countries such as Myanmar and Laos. This can be achieved through education policies.

In the UK, there have been talks about rendering the study of politics and international relations compulsory at GCSE level. If this had been the case before the EU referendum, the awareness of the EU could have been greater and Brexit could have been less likely to have happened.  Making compulsory the study of politics and international relations at the high school level in Southeast Asia will surely result in more discussions about ASEAN, a political organisation. Furthermore, establishing student exchanges within Southeast Asia, like the Erasmus programme within the EU, will automatically help to promote among young people the principles of free movement encouraged by ASEAN.

Another way to promote the awareness of ASEAN and people’s engagement with it is by encouraging grassroots and bottom-up ASEAN-related activities and organisations, such as the youth-led Aseanite. In this way, ASEAN will not end up being a purely elitist entity and it will not be seen to be distant in the same way as the British people saw the EU.

Finally, the awareness of ASEAN may naturally lead to the spread of a greater acceptance of migrants and generally the “other” in the region and it may in the long run constitute an obstacle to nationalism in Southeast Asia. ASEAN provides an example of co-existence and multiculturalism. The motto of ASEAN, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, epitomises how diversity is seen as a strength and not a burden for the Southeast Asian community.  For instance, if the awareness of ASEAN was higher and its values stronger in the region, Singaporeans would have to reconsider the policy allowing them to pick only the migrant labour they prefer. This goes against the freedom of movement and labour promoted by ASEAN.

ASEAN is far from a Brexit. Yet it provides the Southeast Asian region with a truly important message. Inclusiveness and awareness should play a crucial role in the political success of ASEAN. These together will constitute an antidote for nationalism and contribute to the establishment of a stronger, more free and more tolerant Southeast Asian region.


Giuseppe Maio is a politics and IR graduate, currently studying towards and MSc in Social Statistics. He works as a researcher in the department of Social Stats of the University of Manchester and as a freelance journalist. He joined Aseanite at the end of 2015.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.