Will the European Union be a Good Model for ASEAN?

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

The following essay is from an entry that I made for an essay-presentation competition with the above topic. Therefore, all footnotes are retained.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU) are both ‘the best of both worlds’, in the same respect. Both are regional cooperation organizations, which operate in two different regions that have two very distinct characteristics. In international politics, both are often compared and contrasted for the same reason above.

By being the older – while also considering the developed vs. developing condition – one may ask, will the EU be a good model for ASEAN? Facing the same question, I’ll answer: no. And there are reasons why.

Firstly, there is a major difference on how both organizations established. If one follows the path of regional integration, from the creation of free trade until political integration[1], EU is considerably successful in following the path of integration. Comparing to many organizations that are trying to follow the same success story, EU is the most successful, and said to be the ‘role model’ for regional integration.

Yet there are striking differences with ASEAN in this respect. Through its history, the establishment of ASEAN was begun on the far end of the table: political issues. The first reason that ASEAN manifested was an interest to maintain political sovereignty of each state[2]. In that sense only, there can be no way that the EU’s path can be emulated.

Secondly, there is the issue of democracy. In the EU, there is the so-called “Copenhagen Criteria,” a set of requirements that states need to fulfill in order to join the Union. Among the most important is that the applicant must have, stable democracy and protection of human rights[3]. The rule has been carried out meticulously, considering the flow of applicants to the EU, and that only 27 countries are currently members of the EU. Turkey, to a certain extent, may give the example[4]. One may see, therefore, that members of the EU are the same in at least that one issue.

In a very much different way, ASEAN members are far from applying democracy, let alone human rights. From all 10 members of ASEAN, they have differing systems one another. There are three democracies (Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines) which are far from being stable and having many law deficiencies; soft authoritarian (Singapore, Malaysia), and one-party dictatorial (Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brunei)[5]. The way that the system differs one another should suggest that ASEAN would work best on protecting their own sovereignty, something that will be discussed shortly.

Lastly, and perhaps the most defining of all, is the characteristic of the organization itself. As I have mentioned before, differences in political system and the lack of common acceptance of democracy in ASEAN suggests that member states will work only to protect their own sovereignty. This is pretty much evident if one reads the ASEAN Charter (2007), especially Article 2 (2(a), (e), (f))[6]. No wonder, observers call ASEAN a ‘talk shop’, or ‘consultation conclave’[7]. Being a talk shop, nothing can be really done to solve issues, because the only thing in ASEAN that is materialized is the Secretariat, and only heads of state and ministers meet annually. The principle of ‘non-interference’ simply prevents any real solutions to be taken, such as in the case of Burma or Thailand[8].

If one contrasts that with the EU, the EU is considerably mature with organizations and bodies that allow the EU to intervene, in cases which the member state is unable to deal on its own. The structure of the EU also gives way for more participation from the people of EU, e.g. through the European Parliament. In that contrast, ASEAN will remain an organization of consultation, while the EU remains an organization that does something for the better of the whole Europe.

To briefly conclude, even if the EU provides a lot of good examples on how regional integration should be, it is a path that ASEAN may not follow. There are just to many differences to cope. Looking at the way things going now, even there is no way the Charter will be amended to at least suit what the EU is doing now. So the answer to the question will be a resounding ‘no’.

[1] The process of free trade area, customs union, common market, economic union, and political union. See Theodore H. Cohn, Global Political Economy: Theory and Practice (Pearson), pp. 209-210.

[2] Sheldon W. Simon, “ASEAN and the New Regional Multilateralism,” in International Relations of Asia, ed. David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 198-199 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008).

[3] Ian Bache and Stephen George, Politics in the European Union, 2nd Edition (New York City, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 552-553.

[4] If one discusses about the enlargement of the European Union, the issue of Turkey will certainly show up to the top of the discussion chart. Compared to other applicants, “Turkey had been an applicant for membership for longer than any of the states that gained entry in 2004.” (Bache & George, pp. 554-555) There are many reasons – some real, some speculative – regarding the reason why seldom countries of the EU accept Turkey’s application. One attempt to explain is related to the development of democracy in Turkey, which is hardly stable (Bache & George, p. 555). One of the key highlights, Bache and George stated (p. 557) was in 2002 (as also quoted from Müftüler-Bac and McLaren, 2003) regarding the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic party, which won the general election, because it sparked a fear that Turkey would distant itself from the idea of a secular state. Even by being secular these days, Turkey will still find itself in difficulties for the application, especially facing possible veto from countries like Greece (relations soured for many years) and oppositions from Germany.

[5] Simon, op. cit., p. 206.

[6] The ASEAN Charter, Article 2 (2): “ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with the following Principles: (a) respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all ASEAN Member States;… (e) non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States;… (f) respect for the right of every Member State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion.

[7] Simon, op. cit., p. 203.

[8] Apparently, the international world has often called ASEAN to intervene in both cases, i.e. human rights violations in Burma (otherwise known as Myanmar, the official designation made by the regime, recognized by ASEAN but not by most of the countries outside), and the Thailand-Cambodia conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple. So far, nothing has happened.

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