ASEAN and EU: Regional organizations but different communities

06/01/2016

         Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their annual summit on 22 November 2015 formally established the ASEAN Community. The realization of the ASEAN Community is a momentous milestone in ASEAN’s history but has met with lukewarm responses from various sectors of ASEAN society. Pundits questioned whether ASEAN had really become a community – they had compared ASEAN with the European Union, and were disappointed that ASEAN does not measure up to the level of integration achieved by the EU. There was nothing like the European Parliament or the European Court of Justice. Social activists argued that the ordinary citizens of ASEAN are mostly unaware of the community-building process or see no benefit from being part of it.

ASEAN and the EU are the two most prominent regional integration projects in the world today. However, they arose out of different contexts and have different visions and missions.
ASEAN is a geo-political and economic organization of 10 states within Southeast Asia. It was founded on 8 August 1967 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration. However, ASEAN genesis dates back to 1961 with the formation of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA). ASEAN has no single military response option of force, no single currency and its modus operandi is encapsulated in the “ASEAN Way”. Like the EU, one of the main reasons for establishing ASEAN was to promote regional peace and stability through economic cooperation and growth. On 7 October 2003 at the Ninth ASEAN Summit, ASEAN leaders 'agreed to establish an ASEAN Community that would be supported by the three pillars of political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation' [4] by the year 2020, to align with the ASEAN vision 2020. In structural terms, the ASEAN Community is actually comprised of three pillars, namely the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (that will not be explored in this article for reasons of its scarce depth), the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and the AEC. Each pillar has developed on the path of a specific ‘Blueprint’ from 2009 to 2015 and now in a renewed version from 2016 to 2025, as part of the general ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
The EU is an economic and political union of 28 member states within the European region. It was named the EU on 1 November 1993, with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. However the EU origins can be traced back to the 1950s with the union of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), Euratom and the European Economic Community (EEC). Both politically, in terms of the absence of war, and economically, in terms of expanded trade and markets, the EU has become a powerhouse in the global economy - although the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has reduced some of its lustre in recent times. The EU has it own military force (or rapid reaction force), a single currency and a constitution. It enjoys four freedoms of movement: goods, services, people and capital. The EU achieves a supranational level of government with its own executive, legislative and judicial branches. Organizations of the EU include the European Commission, Council of Members, European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Before the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, the European Union was itself divided along three pillars: the European Communities (of which the former European Economic Community is the most relevant element), the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters. In a creative effort, thematically, the Socio-Cultural and the economic dimension of the ASEAN can be transferred under the first pillar of the European Union, while the ASEAN Political-Security Community is divided in the last two pillars.
The European Union and ASEAN are similar in that both bodies are multinational groups in major regions of the world which seek to overcome past conflicts by promoting integration. They differ in that the European Union promotes much deeper integration than ASEAN.
European integration, after the two internecine World Wars and ideological divide of the Cold War, followed the modality of building institutions and setting common rules to minimize sovereignty. Pooling sovereignty is a strategy aimed at reducing the potential for military adventurism as witnessed during the two World Wars. Integration across the European continent provides better security, sustaining peace and development.
On the other hand, the historical experiences of Southeast Asia are different. Many of the ASEAN member states are relatively young independent nations and view sovereignty as paramount and something to be jealously guarded. Building regional institutions is still a nascent idea. Globalization and technological advancement have however enhanced the need for cooperation across national borders and ASEAN is nimbly trying to adapt to the changes in global dynamics – by integrating the member states’ economies and social systems in a strategic collective to secure peace and development.

    Notwithstanding their differences, ASEAN and the EU have worked hard to cultivate significant political, economic and cultural ties over the years. Cooperation and collaboration provide a mutuality of support and an exchange of ideas and innovations beneficial for both. It is germane to highlight some important facts that buttress the ASEAN-EU relationship. The EU is ASEAN’s second largest external trading partner at US$248 billion for 2014 – around 10% of ASEAN’s total trade. It is also ASEAN’s largest external investor for 2012-2014 with more than US$56 billion, with US$29 billion alone in 2014, amounting to around 22% of total FDI inflow.

Being the two regional integration works always in the news these days, comparing ASEAN and the EU will be unavoidable. However, such direct comparisons are not appropriate as the two groupings originated from different circumstances and are navigating through different terrains towards different destinations. Yet, they face common challenges in the 21st century and they can certainly offer each other valuable lessons in tackling the complexities of governance at the national, regional and international levels./.       
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