The EU has tried to impose its economic and regulatory power on Southeast Asia for years by promoting its model of interregionalism. The idea that the EU is a role-model of integration has been considered a pillar of Brussels’ soft power and an important EU foreign policy instrument. However, the EU’s attempt ‘to sell’ its model in the region often failed due to the heterogeneity of ASEAN member states and doubts by its leaders to replicate a model that over time has shown several pitfalls.
The advent of Brexit has added an additional layer of skepticism about the strengths of the EU integration project, leaving an indelible mark on the EU’s external image. In various quarters, for example, analysts argue the EU has lost its original appeal as a model for ASEAN. We spoke to Clara Portela, a professor of international politics at Singapore Management University (SMU).
The very idea that the EU is an archetype of integration is more and more dismissed in Asia. Has Brexit exacerbated this overall view?
Adopting the European model of integration has never been an aspiration for ASEAN. Instead, ASEAN elites have sometimes proposed to adopt specific features of the European experience.
Since the beginning of the sovereign debt crisis, the European has increasingly lost attractiveness. In recent years, the Eurocrisis has been superseded by the refugee crisis and Brexit. Brexit might not have been decisive, but combined with other crises, media reporting on European affairs has been predominantly negative for a long time. As a result, the model has lost much of its attractiveness.
Organisations such as ASEAN and the EU are often used as scapegoats for domestic political failures. What can ASEAN and its single members learn from EU mistakes and Brexit?
The most obvious lesson from Brexit for ASEAN is that regional organisations, the kind of co-operation that they put in place and the nature of its policies should be amply and clearly communicated to the public. An organisation that remains unknown to the public is vulnerable to distortions by politicians and the media, regardless of the benefits it produces for the societies involved.
Can regional bodies such as ASEAN and the EU survive without further political union?
They can most certainly survive. ASEAN has not embraced the objective of integration until relatively recently, and this goal is circumscribed to the economic field. However, the adoption of integration projects gives these regional organisations a dynamism, a sense of incrementalism that makes them generally more attractive than static entities.
Do you think ASEAN-EU economic relations could be undermined by growing concern over human right violations, for example in Myanmar?
It is true that the EP has a pronounced commitment to human rights and that it has the power of frustrating the ratification of trade agreements. However, as the composition of the parliament is very diverse, it is difficult to predict whether it will block ratification of an Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on human rights grounds. Many members appreciate that the liberal world order is in jeopardy, and that via its FTAs the EU can contribute to uphold it. Also, the trade relationship between the EU and ASEAN countries has traditionally been good, and it can be easier for the EU to protect human rights in the region by implementing the FTAs and PCAs than by preventing their ratification.
It would be difficult to achieve a region-to-region FTA. What are the main obstacles and issues standing in the way?
In the past, there was an obstacle of political nature, namely Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN. This country was under sanctions for almost 15 years on account of its poor democracy and human rights record. Yet, it joined ASEAN in 1997. The EU was not ready to include Myanmar in a region-to-region FTA. However, the main reason why the idea was relinquished was the very diverse levels of development in ASEAN. EU countries differ in their levels of wealth, but the differences among ASEAN members are more acute, which makes its more complicated to design a deal that works for everybody, as they have different needs. Cambodia and Laos are among the least developed countries on the planet, while Brunei and Singapore are high-income countries. This problem persists even now, after the political impasse over Myanmar has been resolved. Still, the EU is negotiating FTAs (and parallel political agreements) with individual ASEAN members in the hope of integrating them into a single region-to-region agreement in the future. The FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam are ready, others are still in the making.
In recent years, however, the EU and ASEAN have agreed to develop a more rounded partnership which goes beyond the traditional focus on economic issues. For example, further cooperation on the environment. Do you see any new opportunities on the fight against climate change after the US pulled out from the Paris Agreement?
Political co-operation between the EU and ASEAN is on the rise and will expand further in the coming years. There are a number of fields in which their interests converge, and climate change. As most of them are coastal or island states, they are worried about rising sea levels. The strengthening of co-operation is being aided by the conclusion of Partnership and Co-operation agreements (PCA), which contain plenty of provisions for co-operation outside the purely economic realm. Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is a setback for the regime, but it is not bound to alter EU-ASEAN co-operation in this field