Brexit and the false analogies with Asean

Asean is no European Union, and its go-slow approach to integration works well in the region

Flags of Asean members displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei where the 22nd ASEAN Summit is being held. PHOTO: ST FILE

Governments, political-economic analysts and newspaper editorials all over the world reacted with alarm at the June 23 British referendum result for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union.

In Asia, the vote to exit from the most integrated regional organisation in the world sparked comparisons with Asean, often touted as the most successful regional organisation in Asia and the developing world. Many warned that regional integration had gone too far in Europe. They noted that Asean should be careful with projects like the Asean Economic Community (which might aggravate economic inequalities) and the free movement of eight professions (which might raise fears of job losses).

I would suggest that most of these comparisons are misplaced. Apart from sensitising Asean against taking any ambitious leaps forward on enhanced regional cooperation (that is, more substantive integration), the impact on Asean will be minimal.

First, the EU and Asean are very different animals. The EU's founding fathers envisioned a post-Westphalian regional order based on (French political economist and diplomat) Jean Monnet's vision of a supranational Europe when they formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. This was based on shared political and social values; a sense of a shared "European" identity based on history; a desire not to repeat the nationalist mistakes that led to two world wars; alignment with the US; and opposition to communism. They pledged to transcend the nation-state based on shared sovereign control over sensitive resources linked to heavy industry, weapons manufacturing and atomic energy.

Asean, on the other hand, was founded by five states which sought to consolidate post-colonial regimes, most of which had recently become independent. Unlike their European counterparts, Asean states used their organisation to guarantee and build each nation-state's sovereignty. Non-interference in the domestic affairs of each state and weak centralised coordination (a secretariat did not even come into existence until 1976) were sacrosanct principles.

Even the post-Cold War decision to move towards a low-level Asean free trade area was considered sensitive. There is no single currency, no Asean passport. The "four freedoms" of the EU's single market - free movement of goods, capital, services and especially persons (citizens' right to move and live in any state within the organisation) - are simply absent or restricted in Asean.

Second, the series of concurrent crises in Europe since 2009 has simply put the EU, as it has been conceived, under multiple and severe strain.

The euro crisis, the breakdown of states in the EU's neighbourhood (especially Libya, Ukraine and Syria), the ensuing influx of refugees and the rise of ISIS and terrorism in Europe - these ongoing crises and the difficulty of reaching consensus among 28 member states have simply overwhelmed the capacity of national governments and the EU institutions (Commission, Parliament, European Central Bank) to arrive at common solutions that can placate the heightened anxieties of European publics.

In comparison, the Asean region has been fortunate in having populations and economies that continue growing, with no failed states in the neighbourhood, and it does not face the same scale of displaced persons or a tide of immigrants seeking a better life within its members' borders.

Third, the depth of integration demanded of member states in Asean has been low. Asean's leaders have found the EU integration process very useful as a reference or even a model for its own institutionalisation. But they have been careful to avoid politically sensitive, long-term commitments from which disentanglement could be protracted and costly.

For instance, Asean study teams visited Brussels and Berlin in the aftermath of the 2004 "no" referendum votes in France and the Netherlands to a European Constitution, in order to avoid making similar mistakes in the framing of the Asean Charter .

On transnational crises such as the haze or international ones such as the disputes over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea, Asean has often been criticised for not finding a regional solution or for not speaking with one voice to external powers such as China.

But this avoidance of locking in Asean states' positions into categorical legal commitments has also allowed Asean a measure of flexibility in shifting gears as fast-evolving situations demand. Asean states can and do respond to globalisation pressures without disenfranchising whole socio-economic segments of the population within states, or whole states from the pressures of an "ever closer union".

If there is one lesson of Brexit for Asean, it is that Asean should not take the benefits of regional projects for granted.

Citizens, the media and governments need to know and be reminded that there are tangible benefits to belonging to a regional organisation. The benefits of projects like the Asean Economic Community may not be immediately apparent or evenly distributed to everyone in society (in fact, there might even be some "losers"). But to win public support over the long term, governments, Asean agencies and scholars need to engage in public diplomacy and debates to educate their populations and highlight both the attendant costs and benefits inherent in any regional initiative.

•Associate Professor Reuben Wong is Director of Studies, College of Alice and Peter Tan, at the National University of Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2016, with the headline Brexit and the false analogies with Asean. Subscribe