Lessons To Be Learned: What ASEAN Must Draw From The EU Experience

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.

BY ADRIAN ANG

          The European Union and ASEAN are not one in the same thing, nor will they ever be. No evidence suggests that in our lifetimes at least, ASEAN possesses the will or even the capacity to replicate that of which Europe has accomplished economically, politically and socially. Nonetheless, ASEAN stands to benefit a great deal from a conscientious and sincere analysis of the structural behemoth that is the EU, as the macroscopic challenges they face are an eventuality for any form of political or economic union, even one very much in its infancy. Whether we are to confront them tomorrow or in the next half century, the importance of learning earnestly from the EU’s dire mistakes is unquestionable.

 

A Political Will

A characteristic feature of ASEAN in the formation of its union is the relatively peculiar means in which it has cooperated and made regional progress. This frequently dubbed “ASEAN way” in which decisions and agreements are made only upon “extreme consensus”, with an emphasis on national sovereignty and non-intervention, has ensured that any progress is more or less concrete (should there be any in the first place). It follows a simple philosophy of mutual respect in the hopes of minimising conflict and friction. But if we ask ourselves why this is, we arrive at our first distinction between ASEAN and the EU today; the level of political will.

The EU was formed more than anything, as a means of preventing another continental war. It was indeed a noble pursuit, but it was one that bore an almost revolutionary political atmosphere aimed at achieving a union of countries that spent much of the previous half-century at war. It was through this almost desperate need for unity against conflict that the EU has become so interlinked in a matter of 4 decades.

Indeed, it was the severity of European history that necessitated such a fervent will in unionising, a characteristic ASEAN does not share and should be very appreciative of. To put it in simple terms, ASEAN is not in the rush that the EU was in forming its grand design.  ASEAN at its most urgent, was intended as a collective defense against communism; a dynamic that is largely inexistent today, and we should take advantage of this feature in carefully strengthening the foundation of our union, so the cracks won’t show as they are now in Europe.

 

An Identity

The way Brexit was won, and its inspiration of the ensuing national movements aimed at leaving the EU are representative of a larger lack of European identity. No Englishman, Frenchman, German or the like really ever identifies themselves as European first. Ask anyone and they begin with a country, they identify with a country, they participate in the politics of a country… ; European issues and identities are a very distant second in the priorities of the general populous if they are one at all. And here lies the problem, for with no sense of belonging, there is no bother to understand, and if there is no bother to understand, there is no awareness of what you give and you get. In a country you pay taxes, the government pronounces its spending of your taxes in the budget, you see the roads being built, hospitals and schools running and a representative for your district that voices the general concerns of the people.

This is fundamentally not the case with the EU. Just rewatch all the Brexit coverage and you’ll see how much time had to be dedicated to educating the people on just what the EU was, how much it cost, how it worked and what it did. Most debates where just about whether this “fact” was simply true or not and not really of the ramifications and the real consequences of leaving. This was so because Brussels had always seemed a very distant and shrouded organisation, a reputation exacerbated in the aftermath of the Greek crisis. People who were made to vote for this historical shift were effectively having to learn on the job, existing aversions already in place. And how were they convinced? Not by the few founded logical arguments that still tended towards further integration as a solution, but largely by arguments of “sovereignty”, dollar costs and immigration, issues that are largely unaffected by leaving the EU but seemed nice to imagine at the time.

So make no mistake, a sense of belonging is of utmost importance in the sustenance of a union no matter how intangible or trivial it may seem. It is a basic building block that ASEAN requires if it intends to go any further. People need to be aware of how such a large and growing element of their livelihood functions, so that they can’t be bogged down by forces of disunity that prey on ignorance. But this takes time, time we fortunately have and should make use of if we’re in this for the long run.

 

A Democratic Economy  

Now I would not dare portray the general lack of awareness of the EU as a fault of the people alone, for Brussels as an institution has, whether intentionally or not, shrouded itself from the public eye and truly democratic principles. As former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has exhaustively detailed, the European Bureaucracy has effectively engaged in a systematic depoliticising of decision making, “cloaking all policy-making in a pervasive pseudo-technocratic fatalism”.

Europeans do not participate in the EU to an extent because they cannot. The only parliament in the world that cannot initiate legislation is that of the EU, and the consequences of this undoing of democratic politics has been most evident in the economics. As Varoufakis elaborates, “To maintain their unenforceable fiscal rules, the Brussels and Frankfurt-based technocracies ensured that economies sharing the euro were being sequentially marched off the cliff of competitive austerity, resulting in permanent recession in the weaker countries and low investment in the core countries”.

It may seem far easier and more convenient to subsume a technocratic bureaucracy in such a large union, especially when it is one that will otherwise be subject to consistently varying opinions and circumstances. However, ASEAN must not forget the consequences of Brussel’s doctrines on the people they were supposed to serve. The failure to both prevent and handle the Greek crisis in Europe has left an entire country in ruins. Policies of monetary unions that used austerity and internal devaluation as the only means of maintaining stability, the lack of fiscal cooperation in ensuring a recycling of surpluses and the general protectionist nature of many trade policies. These are the fruits of economic catastrophe, resulting from highly concentrated governing.

Policy-wise, the remedies are simple. A monetary union in ASEAN cannot be contained without an accompanying fiscal union that equalizes surplus and generates stability within disparate regions. There will be natural deficit and surplus regions as long as levels of industrial and social development are dissimilar. This is and will be the case for ASEAN for the foreseeable future, and therefore, fiscal equalisation mechanisms must be put in place to prevent an unsustainable Greek-German dynamic. Free movement of labour should not be allowed to perpetuate already existing brain-drain in many regions and should be cooperatively managed to incentivise the shift of excess skilled and unskilled labour to regions that require them.

Hindsight renders these policies as fairly avoidable and allows them to be tweaked in order to serve ASEAN better, but the greater lesson is in the means by which policies themselves are debated and instituted, for it is only through a properly democratic system that ASEAN will be able to truly enhance its development in a sustainable manner.

So yes, ASEAN is indeed different and should strive to be different from the EU in many respects. Unity knows no one architecture, and ASEAN is in the process of discovering its own in the wake of the dissolution of others. These are just some of the major takeaways from the unraveling occurring in our time and it deserves our undivided attention.

 

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