2017 is a year of celebrations for both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU). It is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, born in 1967, as well as the 60th anniversary of the creation of the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the EU).  In addition, it has been thirty years since the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations were established and formalised. Both blocs are based on the principle of unity. Hence their mottos: ‘United in diversity’, for the European bloc; ‘One vision, one identity, one community’, for the Southeast Asian one. But the approach of both entities to such unity differs in a way which is certainly worth analysing.

ASEAN and the EU are both communities of nations which came together in institutions to deal with issues jointly and apply common solutions beneficial to all those involved. In other words, they are both committed to regionalism. However, regionalism has different meanings to both organisations, and ASEAN has seen the EU more as an inspiration than as a model. Thus ASEAN, which has not reached a level of integration comparable to that of the EU, can take Europe as an archetype of regionalism and make any alterations it deems necessary in order to create a regional institution suitable for the backdrop that is Southeast Asia.

Tracing back both institutions to their origins, we find common historical characteristics in the two regions. The first motivation for regionalism is conflict. In Europe, Germany and France had had a history of bitter rivalry, with two world wars behind them, while in Southeast Asia, every nation was, or had been, involved in some kind of dispute with another prior to the formation of ASEAN, such as the Borneo confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia (1963-66). Regionalism is a tool to put an end to these situations through intergovernmental cooperation, and the creation of both organisations involved common meetings among ministers and national leaders, bringing about an atmosphere of trust. A second motivation behind these institutions is the ability to enhance the economic performance of both regions: through trade agreements and economic interdependence, member states could access new markets and increase their competitiveness. A third common characteristic was the need to have a voice in the international arena so as to not be fully dependent on the world superpowers. Both regions were eager to prevent interference by the US and the Soviet Union, something typical of the Cold War chess game. Thus ASEAN and the EU were born.

However, the way in which such regional cooperation materialised came in two very different forms. In Southeast Asia, the aim was to promote cooperation and prosperity among the states of the region. In doing so, the institution that emerged was more a forum for governments to discuss and solve issues in a joint manner, rather than an independent body with a degree of power or autonomy. In other words, ASEAN was the sum of its parts rather than an entity in itself. Such an approach, referred to as the ‘ASEAN way’, entails that the rules followed are informal norms rather than strict treaties, and that, above all, any decision taken is the result of the consensus of all members. The result of this is that national leaders may try to advance short-term national interests without realising that the prospects of a successful future grow exponentially if interests are aligned and considered on a regional level.

For example, in today’s bipolar world led by the US and China, ASEAN’s position is split, with some members, like Singapore, looking to the former, while others, like Cambodia, reaching to the latter, thus preventing any possibility of establishing a common foreign and security policy. Consequently, ASEAN’s stance towards the South China Sea dispute is ambiguous and multifaceted. Scholar Dr Nicholas Khoo asks: “If the organisation cannot speak with a powerful voice on a dispute [the South China Sea dispute] involving contested sovereignty claims between China and some of its members, then when can it speak?”, and he adds that “ASEAN will continue to be a casualty of Chinese realpolitik”. Unless it changes its approach, ASEAN as a single entity might fail to harness its geopolitical potential. Such potential has not yet fully materialised because ASEAN itself falls victim to the disunity yielded by its own system of functioning – a system that makes it challenging for disputes to be solved and for common action to be taken. That said, it is crucial to acknowledge that ASEAN has overall succeeded in making of Southeast Asia a stable and peaceful region.

This contrasts sharply with the formal rules and structure of the EU, a structure which resembles that of a state, with executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Even though the foundations behind both organisations are similar, the ethos of the EU is one which stems from the ideas of federalism: the basis of the European project lies in achieving a federal union. In ASEAN, however, there has not been enough political will among either the people or the political elites to integrate in such a way, probably because, as pointed out by the former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, it was the member states’ “shared convictions on national priority objectives and on how best to secure these objectives” that encouraged the creation of ASEAN, rather than grand narratives or ideologies. This, in turn, is due to the fact that it was nationalism that caused the tragic events of the Second World War in Europe, and supranationalism was the response to this in the post-war period. Southeast Asia, in contrast, did not suffer from the conditions that instigate supranationalism in the first place.


But the EU system also entails costs and risks. The bloc faces problems which ASEAN does not come across, namely the disenchantment, disenfranchisement and even resentment felt by relatively large numbers of people across the continent towards the institution. Notably, the Eurozone crisis, a stagnant regional economy, high unemployment rates and the refugee crisis have been determining factors in the subsequent emergence of Eurosceptic political groups, which have targeted the very basis of the EU’s structure and ideals, generating great uncertainty about the future and survival of the Union. Although such trends will eventually lessen, the unique pace of, and approach to, integration adopted by ASEAN, the ‘ASEAN way’ system of cooperation, and the formidable economic growth of the bloc, make it less likely that an equivalent ASEAN-scepticism will arise. Brexit and the wider populist backlash against the European system might convince ASEAN that it is on the right track, and that, maybe, integration is not worth paying the price of transferring national sovereignty to a regional level.

In fact, regarding this matter, we can discern two clear differences between the ASEAN Charter (adopted in 2008) and the EU’s Lisbon Treaty (adopted in 2009), both of which set out the basic functioning of the two institutions. Firstly, not only does the ASEAN Charter make special stress on maintaining the sovereignty of ASEAN member states, but it also ensures “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states”. This is not the case for its European counterpart. Secondly, the ASEAN Charter states that the ASEAN Summit (comprising the heads of state or government of the member states) is “the supreme policy-making body of ASEAN”, leaving virtually no power to the ASEAN Secretariat. In contrast, the European Council (the European equivalent of the ASEAN Summit) “shall not exercise legislative functions”, since these lie within the Parliament and the Commission. Hence the national governments are the sole driving force behind ASEAN, and this system makes it difficult for nationalistic elements of Southeast Asian politics to claim that ASEAN entails a loss of national sovereignty.

One could think that ASEAN will not follow the path of the EU, mainly because the latter has shown the risks of carrying out a project assuming that the peoples approve it, and also because federative integration was never the idea behind ASEAN in the first place. This has been the case since ASEAN’s inception until the 21st century. However, in 2003, ASEAN leaders signed in Bali the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II, which formally introduced the term and idea of the ‘ASEAN Community’, and divided its areas of focus into three pillars that form a structural basis for further regional cooperation: the Economic Community, the Political-Security Community, and the Socio-Cultural Community. Their aims are to create a single ASEAN market, to facilitate regional conflict management and to improve living standards, respectively. This structure was initially planned to become functional in 2020, but was finally introduced in 2015.

With these developments we are probably beginning to see the end of simple intergovernmental cooperation and the start of genuine supranational integration, especially with the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community, which has the objective of eventually bringing about a common ASEAN market. Such developments are undoubtedly reminiscent of how the European Coal and Steel Community (1952) developed into the European Economic Community (1957), becoming in the 1990s a union which, like ASEAN today, was based on three pillars (in short, economic, social and environmental policy; foreign and security policy; and justice), and ultimately developed into a state-like union. Having this transition in mind and analysing the recent developments in ASEAN, added to the region’s economic success (something that always boosts the prospects of regional integration, as happened in Europe in the 1990s and 2000s), the assumption that ASEAN will not follow the EU’s path does not become as obvious: maybe economic integration inevitably leads to political integration, and we will see a common ASEAN foreign and security policy in a few decades’ time. In any case, it is too early to say whether ASEAN will go down a path somewhat similar; or whether the ‘ASEAN way’, with its distinctive consensus-based, non-interference system, will prevail; or whether we will see a blend of both, with integration in the economic sphere but only cooperation in the political arena.

As a final remark, the issue of identity is worth exploring. A crucial step in regional integration is the creation of a regional identity. This creates a feeling of belonging, trust and appreciation towards one’s wider community, enhancing cultural awareness and preventing nations and peoples from falling into the often narrow-minded attitudes associated with strong nationalism. In continental Europe, the creation of a European identity was generally successful, and the European flag now enjoys the same status as national flags. The feeling of EU citizenship among EU countries according to the 2015 Eurobarometer ranges from 50% (Cyprus) to 88% (Luxembourg), with an average of 67%. For ASEAN, there is no equivalent annual survey, but a 2007 study carried out among students across the region found that, despite ASEAN having less presence in the lives of its citizens than its European counterpart, the feeling of ASEAN citizenship ranged from 49% (Singapore) to as high as 96% (Laos), with an average of 77%. This means there is enormous potential for the creation of an ASEAN identity which could bind the peoples of ASEAN closer together in a peaceful Southeast Asian family of nations. This would be, among all possible achievements, the greatest one for ASEAN as a whole and for its citizens.

A Brief Note on EU-ASEAN Relations

EU-ASEAN Dialogue Relations have developed over the years, but where do they stand today? The ties between both blocs are wider than we would imagine, and they cover all of the main policy areas. After ASEAN foreign ministers agreed, in 1977, to raise EU-ASEAN relations to the ministerial level, the foreign ministers of both blocs have met every eighteen months, starting in 1978. Both regions are increasingly interdependent: the EU is ASEAN’s biggest source of FDI (at 22.3% in 2013) and ASEAN’s second largest trading partner behind China, while ASEAN is the third largest trading partner of the EU, after the US and China. Over the last decade, imports from the EU to ASEAN have increased by 80%, while those from ASEAN to the EU have done so by 40%.

A recent example of the willingness of both organisations to cooperate is the signing of the Nuremberg Declaration in 2007, which pledged to increase cooperation in many fields. These include political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, socio-cultural cooperation and development cooperation. In 2015, the EU appointed its first ambassador to ASEAN.

One attempt at cooperation which has failed to materialise and therefore stands out above all the others is the signing of a free trade agreement between both blocs. Negotiations started in 2007, but no agreement took place, and they eventually came to a halt in 2009, with the EU pursuing free trade agreements with individual ASEAN countries. However, this route has not been too successful either, and the only ones that have been agreed so far are those with Singapore (2014) and Vietnam (2015), although neither has yet been ratified. At the moment, negotiations with the rest have overall stalled. In the near future, with the US foreseeably turning to protectionist policies, these negotiations will probably make progress.


Roberto is currently studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick. He has been part of the organising committee of the Warwick ASEAN Conference 2017. His interests include international relations and European and Southeast Asian politics. He can be contacted at r.gimenez-llamas@warwick.ac.uk.

*This article was first published by Warwick ASEAN Conference on 8th February 2017 at: http://warwickaseanconference.com/asean-and-the-eu-the-two-faces-of-regional-integration/

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.