Vienna, 19 July 2007
- The early seeds of regional integration were planted as far back as 1992 when ASEAN – then only six members – agreed to form an ASEAN Free Trade Area. Prior to this, the focus in ASEAN had been, almost exclusively, on regional cooperation rather than integration.
- The buzz that currently surrounds all discussion on regional integration in ASEAN really came into being in 2003. ASEAN – now with ten members – declared a commitment to regional integration across the board – not just in the economic sectors – and the term “ASEAN Community” quickly became part of our common vocabulary.
- The last two years in particular have seen a frenzy of community-building activities. In January 2007, the ASEAN Leaders upped the ante and agreed to accelerate the pace of integration, bringing forward the timetable for achieving the ASEAN Community from 2020 to 2015.
Looking to the EU for Ideas, not as a Model
- Community building is an ambitious task. Undertaking this with an eye to a deadline only eight short years away can be a daunting challenge. It is by no accident that ASEAN has been looking at the European Union’s rich experience as we map out our own plans for becoming a Community by 2015.
- We are not looking to take the EU model lock, stock and barrel. We simply cannot. The very nature of ASEAN as an intergovernmental organisation differs from that of the EU. However, we are looking for good ideas and best practices, and the European Union certainly has plenty of these.
- There are three specific challenges that we in ASEAN are seized with as we lay the foundations of our ASEAN Community, and for which we are looking towards European experience for some ideas.
- First, moving ASEAN to become a more rules-based organisation.
- The ASEAN Charter, which is expected to be signed by the Leaders this November, will be an important milestone. In effect, the Charter will formalise the establishment of ASEAN as a full-fledged inter-governmental organisation, moving it from its current state as a loosely-organised regional entity. The ASEAN Charter will confer ASEAN with a legal personality as an inter-governmental organisation, one that is separate from each Member State. With the Charter, Member States will have a framework to operate efficiently under a rules-based environment. ASEAN decisions and agreements will become legally binding. In all, the Charter will be instrumental in making ASEAN more effective as ASEAN steps up the pace of regional integration and community building.
- The EU’s very legal approach is probably one that ASEAN is not ready for as yet. For instance, the EU has a court system and ASEAN is not near having one at this stage. However, the drafters of the Charter have met with various EU experts and officials to learn from their experiences on enforcing compliance and ensure observance to the rights and responsibilities of membership.
- Second, Narrowing the Development Gap.
- We do not want a two-tier ASEAN. Our newer members – those who joined in the 1990s – are playing a catch-up development game. This cannot go on indefinitely without having a negative effect on ASEAN cohesiveness.
- To-date, most of our initiatives in narrowing the development gap has been on capacity building for our newer members. It is coming to a point where we need to think about the next stage. The question is whether we are prepared to give larger focus towards projects like regional infrastructure building and whether we can raise the resources to do so? Can aspects of European mechanisms be applied to ASEAN?
- Third, cultivating a stronger sense of an ASEAN identity.
- Europe has been relatively successful in instilling a European identity. In contrast, it would be rare in Southeast Asia, to find citizens who think themselves as belong to ASEAN. We are aware we cannot build the ASEAN Community if the people of ASEAN do not feel invested in it.
- Most Europeans are multi lingual. ASEAN could look to promote the learning of other ASEAN languages among the people to help promote better understanding among the people.
How the EU has contributed to a Stronger ASEAN
- ASEAN and the EU have had 30 years of Dialogue relations. In recent years, the EU has been a strong supporter of ASEAN’s regional integration initiatives and has been open about sharing knowledge and expertise.
- Through programmes like the EU-sponsored ASEAN Programme for Regional Integration Support (APRIS), and the activities under the Trans Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative (TREATI) and the Reigional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (READI)
Why should a strong ASEAN matter to Europe?
- An ASEAN that is a serious-minded, effective and cohesive organisation will be an important and reliable partner for Europe in the dynamic East Asian region.
- ASEAN has been at the “drivers seat” of the ASEAN Plus Three process and the ASEAN Regional Forum. ASEAN was also entrusted to launch the East Asia Summit. It takes a strong and cohesive ASEAN to be able to play a central role as a credible honest broker and once that can help drive these fora and mechanisms to produce results. ASEAN will continue to help shape the emerging East Asian architecture.
- A strong ASEAN will be a reflection of an economically stable ASEAN which is good for European economic interests in ASEAN.
- With a combined GDP of around US$800 billion and a market of more that 550 million, there are great economic opportunities for European business.
- From 2005 and 2006, total trade grew from US$141 billion to US$160 billion, or about 13 per cent.
- Indeed, the EU and ASEAN decided in May 2007 to launch negotiations for an ASEAN-EU FTA and a stable partnership will contribute to a successful FTA which can open even more opportunities for all 37 economies, particularly small economies, to access one another’s markets and attract FDI.
- Future prospects for cooperation are good. A plan of action for the Nuremberg Declaration is being drafted and the leaders will be meeting at a Summit in November 2007.