The EU a Model for ASEAN?

August 7, 2017

The EU a Model for ASEAN?

Laura Allison-Reumann
Philomena Murray

Image result for ASEAN at 50


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’. 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.

Image result for The scenic diversity of ASEAN

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

4 thoughts on “The EU a Model for ASEAN?

  1. ASEAN always has its staunch adherents and vociferous critics who, especially, blame the famed “ASEAN way” in making decisions through consensus with civility, order and cohesion. It is an understandable approach, given that the five founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – at the time had little in common apart from being in Southeast Asia and having a sense of being threatened by Soviet-backed communism spreading from Vietnam. 50 years later, having doubled in size with the inclusion of Vietnam itself and Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, the grouping of nations remains culturally distinct and at markedly different stages of economic development, but share the common goals of working for regional stability and growth. The grouping still has much work to do to build a community with a common destiny. But Southeast Asia’s peace and security, without which prospects for steady growth and development would be dire, are testament to ASEAN’s achievements and necessity.

  2. ASEAN has done its job. Peace for the last 50 years among the 10 members of the Association. This has allowed some members to go forward, some to go backwards and yet others to run on the spot. By all means use the present form of this association to develop your individual state and the rest will fall in place in the next 50 years.

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