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Should the EU be considered a model for ASEAN?

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European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium 14 June 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Francois Lenoir).

In Brief

The debate about whether the EU is a model for other regions has been around for some time. Former British foreign secretary David Miliband suggested in 2007 that the EU should be a ‘model power’ rather than a ‘superpower’.


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The EU would show ‘other actors that European norms can also work for them, … provide economic incentives for adopting these norms’ and ‘shape policies of global competitors by example and persuasion’.

But there are significant problems with classifying the EU as a model, as well as with creating an image of the EU as a model power.

External perceptions of the EU in Asia do not often reflect or culminate in a classification of an ‘EU model’. The realities of regional integration outside of Europe — such as in the case of ASEAN — do not sit well with ideas of mimicking or emulating a model.

Rather than copying the EU model, when ASEAN has responded to pressures such as changing international humanitarian expectations or questions of economic governance, it has done so by simultaneously consolidating ASEAN’s normative integrity, its independence and adopting best practices from a wide array of sources.

The independence of ASEAN’s decision-making and its own priorities and objectives challenge the idea of an EU model for Southeast Asian regionalism. There is some evidence that it remains a source of inspiration and reference, but it rarely features in ASEAN elite narratives or official documentation.

When it comes to similarities, it is true that the EU and ASEAN have both used economic integration and community-building to foster and maintain security and further economic development. In the broadest and loosest sense, the idea that the EU has been a model for Southeast Asian regionalism may have once had some legitimacy. But this claim would need proof of a causal relationship between ASEAN developments and EU influence. The substance of ASEAN integration, ASEAN’s priorities and norms and institutional innovations all point to the significant limitations of any ‘model power’ of the EU.

It is difficult to discern a desire by ASEAN leaders to emulate the EU, even though many statements over the years have expressed admiration for the EU. Especially since the Brexit referendum, there is a rise in scepticism of EU-style regional integration.

Former secretary general of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan has long suggested that the EU is an inspiration rather than a model for ASEAN. Similarly, Singaporean scholar Reuben Wong has argued that the EU does not exercise ‘model power’ and that ‘the EU exerts some power over ASEAN — but merely as a reference point’. He argues that the EU has a passive rather than active influence on ASEAN.

Indeed, research shows that when learning from the EU, ASEAN actively and judiciously accepts, rejects or adapts aspects of EU integration that suit its own context. In other words, ASEAN officials and policymakers have been more likely to turn to the EU for reference, support or inspiration based on functional utility rather than the normative attractiveness associated with models.

The EU has toned down its own language regarding a putative model over time. It has also shifted its approach to supporting Southeast Asian integration. Although the EU is a strong supporter of regional integration in Southeast Asia, over time it has also recognised that ASEAN has its own process to follow, and that European support should be guided by ASEAN, rather than the EU projecting a model.

There has been considerable willingness on the part of ASEAN to learn from the EU. Visits such as those made by ASEAN’s Eminent Persons Group for the ASEAN Charter to Europe in 2006 and by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) officials in 2011, 2013 and 2015 attest to this.

ASEAN also went beyond the EU in the search for inspiration for the ASEAN Charter, looking also to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) with its short constitution, which proved to be a more suitable format for ASEAN than the EU’s lengthy treaties. For one ASEAN official, the EU offers lessons on what ASEAN should avoid in that ‘sometimes the EU experience is good for us because we learn what not to do’.

The use of regional ‘models’ should be treated with caution. This practice emphasises emulation and downplays learning, mutual lesson-sharing and cooperation, essentially reducing the EU’s partners to passive mimics rather than dynamic innovators. It allocates all agency to the EU and effectively assigns a receptive or passive role to the other regional body, with little or no reflexivity.

It also creates subjective benchmarks that do not allow for feasible alternatives to a dominant — and in this case Eurocentric — experience to be given sufficient credit and attention. This is not to suggest a morally or culturally relativistic disregard for models, but rather an acknowledgement that adherence to, and support for, the intrinsic values of the EU can be pursued through other means than projecting an EU model.

Further, other regional bodies may not share the values that the EU espouses, just as some would regard the EU’s institutionally embedded governance structure as not appropriate or exportable. The dangers of integration snobbery come to mind.

Finally, the question must be asked as to the source of the idea of a ‘model’: is it self-proclaimed, determined by those seeking a model or template, or is it created by outside observers? Unless all parties agree, there is a high probability that the credentials of any asserted model will be debatable, and partnership should instead be emphasised.

To an extent, the EU has attempted to promote its experience as a form of external driver of ASEAN. But that experience is not a model.

Laura-Allison Reumann is Research Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Philomena Murray is Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences and Director of the Research Unit on Regional Governance in the EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges at The University of Melbourne. 

This article was originally published here on Pursuit. 

2 responses to “Should the EU be considered a model for ASEAN?”

  1. There are good reasons why ASEAN should not model itself with EU. This region is the fastest growing reason in the world and the grouping have so far been pragmatic in its approach to economic and social areas, and avoid political rhetoric EU desires. ASEAN may have rightly been inspired by EC/EU but only as symbolism and initially to keep the Communist China influence away from the East Asia but under political pressure from USA, when USA was the only global leader (in the field of economic, politics and technology) on the world stage. China has now emerged as the number one economic power house and innovative country, and dominant soft-power. ASEAN’s trade with China is the second largest. If ASEAN enters into any major political conflict in the region will suffer immensely. So far,with great caution ASEAN has remained on outside of regional politics which could hurt Chinese interests in the region. This could be the reason why ASEAN is still functioning pretty well and economically growing, unlike SAARC which is a complete disaster and a dead unity which is incapable of creating better security environment in SOuth-Asia. For ASEAN, EU serves only as symbolism but not for replicating ambitious political agenda (orchestrated to early by France and Germany) which culminated into eventual BREXIT. Surely, riding on a fast lane for too early for too much political union without creating economic synergies within member states was a strategic failure. Further again, jumping too fast to include East European nations (after the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989) to keep them away from Russian influence under NATO/USA influence has contributed disenchantment among member nations which is proving to be detrimental on cohesive unity among EU countries. Lessons learned: EU and NATO move towards East Europe to isolate Russian also a European county, handling of Southern European’s debt/financial/economic crisis coupled with inability to judiciously manage migration and refugee issues have badly ruptured the unity and lead to a total disarray in Brussels. So far, ASEAN has avoided this sort of actions even when China has flexed its muscles in South China Sea. The fact is that over 60% of China’s maritime trade takes place through the South China Sea, as compared to only 14% of the USA. China would not like to see any other nation messing up in this vital economic lifeline and asserting its claim. ASEAN and other regional grouping have a lot to learn from EU experience and change in global political and economic environment. Ground Rule – Stay clear of politics – focus economics, citizens welfare and maximize benefits accrued from global economic liberalization. Perhaps this is the mantra of this decade for most developing nations while USA is not standing up for its leadership global role responsibly. May be, China will !!!

  2. I don’t know why the EU can be a model for Asia considering the fact that the people of Western, Northern and Southern Europe greatly benefit from it for a good deal of time. It stop the countries from trying to fight for resources, trade wars, raise the standard of living for the people, etc. Frankly, I don’t know why Winston Churchill create a similar one for Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

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