Monday, May 24, 2004

Thoughts on regional unity

Simon Upton's column on EU expansion has got me thinking on the subject of super-national organisation in the South Pacific. The recent Australia - New Zealand Leadership Forum was explicitly aimed at bringing our two countries closer together, with talk of an eventual "single market" and even political union. And the topic of stronger co-operation has been raised at recent meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum. But what purpose would such co-operation serve, and what would the resulting forms of organisation look like?

The most obvious starting point is to look at the purpose of closer co-operation - and here we immediately begin to see differences with the EU. The driving force behind the unification of Europe has always been political - the early steps were taken with the explicit goal of making France and Germany so interdependent as to make future war between them impossible. While the EU has expanded since then, the goal has remained the same: to increase interdependence and stability, and thereby prevent war in Europe.

By contrast, the chief motivation underlying talk of closer relations between New Zealand and Australia is primarily economic. We want open access to each other's markets, and free passage for capital, goods, and people. But there's no driving pressure to unify to prevent war because war between our two countries is already unthinkable (and has been for a long time). Our shared history as British colonies, our enormous cultural similarities and the fact that we are so interconnected by family ties sees to that.

As for the wider Pacific, the motive here is primarily one of ensuring good governance, with a hefty dose of security. Discussion is driven by the larger states - Australia and New Zealand - who believe (with some evidence) that their smaller neighbours cannot properly govern themselves. Either they are plagued by corruption, nepotism, and outdated tribal structures to the detriment of their peoples, or are too small to be "viable". Either way, there is also a great deal of fear that these countries will collapse into "failed states" and so provide a haven for terrorists, drug dealers, and organised crime - all of which pose a threat to the larger states' security. And so we encourage them to get together - but primarily for our benefit, not theirs.

With these differences in underlying motivation you would expect the resulting organisations to look very different. So for example the EU is all about creating political and economic interdependence and unity, and so it has centralised political, legal, and bureaucratic institutions to serve these ends (a European Parliament and commission; laws and people to enforce them; a European Court of Human Rights; a common currency). But what would a future NZ-Australia or South Pacific "superstate" look like?

In the case of New Zealand and Australia, it probably wouldn't look like a superstate at all. Merging the two markets will require a lot of negotiation and compromise, but this can be done by the two governments sitting across the table from one another. While it will require shared regulatory authorities to set standards on things such as food and safety, there's simply no need for any superstructure over this. No need for an ANZAC parliament, no need for a court with jurisdiction beyond the intergovernmental agreements concerned, no need even for a common currency (while it would ease the way a little, it is not required). Political union may come by public sentiment, but there's no pressure there.

As for the Pacific, any supernational organisation created there is likely to be even weaker. The pacific states are mostly subsistence economies, with little in the way of industry or trade between them. So what reason is there to get together? Australia and New Zealand have suggested "pooled regional governance" and shared resources - for example, a regional police college and regional airline - but the suggestions all seem to be driven by an agenda of ensuring our security, rather than a real interest in the needs of smaller states. And given the past colonial history in the region, that's not a recipe for unification.

The thing is, there are plenty of issues that pacific states could get together on - controlling fishing in their vast exclusive economic zones, for example - and the problem of small-state viability is a real one that could be countered by reducing the duplication that multiple governments entails. But the latter is demanding something much stronger than the EU - stronger than the United States, even - and so is far less likely to happen. And it will absolutely never happen if New Zealand and Australia insist on being a part of it or on driving the agenda; the suspicions about colonialism and worries about dominance by vastly larger countries are simply too great. We may be better off stepping back, promoting unification as a solution to this problem, and simply funding it out of the aid budget, rather than trying to strongarm our smaller neighbours into doing things "for their own good".