The Future Dilemma between the European Union and ASEAN

Photo from Asian Scientist.
  • Neak Piseth
  • November 2, 2020 6:16 AM

The European Union (EU) is a supranational organization established in the 1950s (European Union, 2016). Compared with other regional organizations, the EU is a unique organization that has superseded binding regulations over member states in terms of trade conflicts.

However, the EU also faces some challenges such as economic crises, political instabilities and conflicts of interest among the superpower countries.

The EU cannot be a role model for other regional organizations, especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was established in 1967 to remove communist ideology from Southeast Asia.

Later, ASEAN started to focus on economic development, social progress and cultural improvement (ASEAN, 2016). Moreover, the development gap is a big concern for the member states as they aim to integrate their economies like the EU. Therefore, the question could be asked:  "Should ASEAN be like the EU?"

Although ASEAN has started to establish its charter in 2008, which makes it more a rule-based organization, it still sticks with the conventional norm "ASEAN Way" to serve each member state's interests. ASEAN is a loose organization rather than a rule-based organization like the EU (Wong, 2013). For example, every ASEAN decision has to be reached through consensus from the member states to reflect each member's interests.

With this method, ASEAN can ensure that all the member states receive benefits from their decisions (Elder & Miyazawa, 2014). It is in contrast with the EU that has the power to make decisions that can negatively affect certain member states rather than serve the common interest of each state. Besides, the EU's ability to use its superior power over the member states' sovereignty contradicts the ASEAN Way.

The ASEAN member states are a blend of different political structures and ideologies. Some countries have been influenced by communism, democracy or military junta. This fundamental political dimension determines the characteristics of each state, which tries to maximize its interests through strategic conversations among top leaders to reach consensuses.

 So, the EU paradigm could not be implemented in the ASEAN context, as the policy and regulations made by the Council or the Parliament of the EU are binding. For instance, Myanmar practices a strict military-junta regime, which entails the military having power rather than the constitution or the king.

This contrasts with Thailand and Cambodia, which practice a neo-liberal democracy (Reyes & Tan, 2014). They provide the king with the divine right to rule the country. Hence, if ASEAN were like the EU—a rule-based and democratic organization—ASEAN would no longer exist, or it would have fewer members because of the conflicts over political ideology among the member states.

Most of the ASEAN member states are developing and less-developing countries (CLMV, that is, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) suffering from weak implementation of the rule of law, making it hard to unify as a standard recognized by the world (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, 2013).

Whereas Europe has led the industrialization since the 1860s, which provides these countries with a core foundation for economic integration. In this sense, it is plausible for the EU to integrate their economies in a deep integration to reduce tariffs, create a customs union, and have a free movement area.  

In a similar vein, ASEAN has embarked on the path towards deep integration through the dismantling of tariffs for trade in its internal region when it created the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 in Singapore. However, ASEAN cannot transform with deep integration like the EU—averaging external tariffs between Indonesia and Singapore has proved difficult given the quasi-free trade port status of Singapore (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, 2016).

There is no point for the ASEAN Secretariat negotiating with third countries and undercutting external tariffs as the EU's commission does (Palatino, 2012).

In conclusion, ASEAN is an institutional organization that practices conventional norms like consensus decision-making and non-interference in internal affairs. That contrasts with the EU as a rule-based and democratic organization.

 In addition, there is little evidence that ASEAN can become as the EU, even though ASEAN has established, along with the charter, the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Still, ASEAN cannot be like the EU due to the nature of the organization, political diversity, and the member states' developmental gap.

Neak Piseth

Founder of  “The Way of Life Cambodia.”  He received a scholarship to pursue his master’s degree in education at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He has been working as an English lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and a reviewer at the Cambodian Education Forum.





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