Panel Report: EU-ASEAN Institutional Cooperation

Panel Report: EU-ASEAN Institutional Cooperation

At IFAIR’s Interregional Online Workshop EU-ASEAN Perspectives, young practitioners and academics debate current issues of EU-ASEAN relations. The first workshop panel dealt with the complex relation of bilateral and interregional approaches, as well as with the drivers of and obstacles to interregional cooperation, especially in the context of trade and human rights policies.

A fourth-level game

EU and ASEAN relations since more than 40 years constitute the globally most intense region-to-region dialogue and have even been termed as a “fourth-level game” with reference to Putnam’s famous theory. But how did EU-ASEAN relations develop over time? What issues have been drivers of interregional relations? What has been in the relations for commercial ties or the human rights debate between both regions?

These questions were at the heart of the first panel of the IFAIR Impact Group EU-ASEAN-Perspectives. Katharina Meissner, PhD candidate at the European University Institute, Florence, and Atena Feraru, PhD candidate at National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan, both gave their input to these questions, followed by an intensive discussion among all participants. The panel was chaired by Kilian Spandler, Assistant Director of the South and East Asia division at IFAIR e. V.

From region-to-region to bilateral approaches

Meissner outlined how the relations moved from a regional approach to bilateral[1] bargaining. At the heart of her explanation is an asymmetrical relationship in crucial policy fields such as trade: Whereas the EU constitutes a single actor, ASEAN member states have both the bilateral as well as the regionalized option to act. This played out when intraregional differences on the ASEAN side stalled the negotiation process and in turn, the EU and willing South-East-Asian counterparts turned to bilateral agreements, steering around painful compromises with other ASEAN members. However, can we still consider the EU under these circumstances as a normative actor, especially as it originally considered interregional bargaining as an end in itself?

ASEAN as sum of its member states

Feraru linked these insights to the general question what kind of actor ASEAN constitutes: As a regional institution dedicated to enhancing its members sovereignty and independence, ASEAN aims continually at external and internal political stability in the region, including its doctrine of non-interference. This also implies a weak institutionalization: Feraru made a clear point in stating that it is hard to distinguish ASEAN from the sum of its member states – although concerted regional action, especially in light of perceived threats to regional autonomy, can be observed: For example in the case of intra-regional debates over the accession of Myanmar to ASEAN, where harsh Western criticism over Yangon’s human rights record determined regional leaders to form a united front against external intervention in regional affairs and ultimately facilitated an unanimous vote within ASEAN to invite Myanmar to join ASEAN in 1997.

The EU as a normative actor?

The following discussion amongst all participants first of all focused on the case of regional vs. bilateral negotiations in the case of a potential free trade agreement between EU and South East Asia. The EU’s strategy of negotiating comprehensive FTAs is not compatible with the heterogeneity of the ASEAN member states. While against this backdrop, the shift to bilateral bargaining is understandable, it became clear that the process impacts heavily on the self-image of the EU. After all, the political goals of region-to-region cooperation and the promotion of regionalization in Southeast-Asia are a normative standpoint constitutive for the EU itself (see report for Panel 2). Although there was consensus that the EU is, compared with other global players, by far not as direct at converting economic in political gains, the question was raised whether the region-to-region approach had not been a political move in the first place, to fulfill the normative aspirations of the EU, and abandoned when material interests were at stake.

It was discussed whether this move could even further a region-to-region agreement in the end – this is linked to the counterfactual thought whether ASEAN could have been able to successfully negotiate if it had integrated trade policy prior to the regional level. The discussion participants agreed in both cases that this is rather not the case, especially in the context of increased economic self-confidence among some of the ASEAN states. In Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, the current financial crisis in the European Union is seen as giving additional leverage against EU bargaining positions in their bilateral free trade negotiations, which decreases their dependence on an integrated regional approach. It seems that national and instrumental thinking is taking precedence over joint regional action.

ASEAN: Regionalism without Regionalization?

The fact that national and instrumental goals are prioritized over regional objectives is hardly surprising given the founding principles and background of ASEAN: ASEAN can only agree to a lowest common denominator. To understand this reluctance against integration, one has to take into consideration the foundational purposes of the organization, which consisted of a mix of motivations from anti-colonialism and sovereignty enhancement in general, to anti-communism and independence from global powers, as participants compiled (see report for Panel 2).

ASEAN is mimicking the EU only in a functional way, e.g. to an extent that serves its member states in gaining international reputation. This is especially true for the realm of human rights, where the participation of non-state actors – some handpicked exceptions notwithstanding – is obstructed as it would threaten to offset the authority of the governments. In the same vein, an effective human rights mechanism beyond the national level is not wanted as it would constrain national sovereignty. ASEAN’s human rights discourse is therefore expected to remain on a discursive level as an effective participation of the ASEAN people would imply to much change in ASEAN structures.

This point of departure is to be acknowledged by the EU as well: Otherwise its current policy towards ASEAN will remain ineffective. In this respect, it was also stressed by participants that it is pivotal for the European side to think issues such as trade and human rights together. These issues will be discussed in even more detail in the upcoming session.

by Lukas Rudolph

The author is Director of IFAIR’s South and East Asia regional group and a member of the Impact Group EU-ASEAN Perspectives.

Read the reports of the other panels and find additional information on the workshop on the >> [Impact Group website].

[1] Bilateral is understood here as negotiations between the EU as a unified actor with single countries in South East Asia.