A practical way forward for EU-ASEAN relations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Union fails to fulfill its potential for cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. It should streamline its approach, not constantly waving the democracy card as this jeopardises interregional relations, several members of the Young Initiative on Foreign Affairs and International Relations (IFAIR) write. 

This article is based on the policy paper ‘Unlocking the Potential of Interregionalism: Mutual Perceptions and Interests in EU-ASEAN Relations’. Its authors are Katharina Meissner, Imke Pente, Nelly Stratieva, Boonwara Sumano and Kilian Spandler – all members of the working group on EU-ASEAN relations in the Young Initiative on Foreign Affairs and International Relations (IFAIR) think tank.

ASEAN is now the third-largest external trading partner of the EU. It is also an ambitious regional integration project and an impressive engine of growth in times of global economic downturn. However, when measured against the intensity of EU’s relations with Asian giants China and India, the cooperation with ASEAN looks like it’s not a priority. The EU’s strategy towards ASEAN also appears less clear and focused when compared to that of China and the United States, its major regional competitors. Considering that ASEAN is one of the most ambitious regional organizations beyond Europe, why has the EU not tapped the potential of a seemingly natural partnership? Cooperation has stalled whenever the EU tried to play the human rights and democracy card because the ASEAN member states consider this an unacceptable intervention in their domestic affairs.

In comparison to the EU’s progress with other major Asian partners like India and China, the relations with ASEAN are lagging behind. After a failed EU-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) all the EU has to show for itself is one recently concluded bilateral FTA with Singapore, plus frustratingly slowly advancing negotiations with Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. In the meantime, the United States and China are making the region a field of strategic rivalry.

The EU’s approach towards ASEAN is formed by the pursuit of business interests in the Southeast Asian markets, on the one hand, and its self-perception as a champion for human rights, rule of law and environment, on the other. In its actual policy, the EU has struggled to make substantive achievements in either of these goals. First, the EU is trailing behind its global competitors in economically engaging ASEAN members. And second, official pressure over Southeast Asian countries to improve their human rights and democracy scorecard has not produced many significant changes. 

ASEAN has rejected EU attempts to formally press for domestic reforms and challenge the Asian doctrine of non-intervention. Most notably, this was the case in the EU’s reaction to human rights violations in Myanmar, which is said to have contributed to the deadlock in EU-ASEAN free trade negotiations. Most of the success stories of EU influence can be attributed to closed-door diplomacy and project-based engagement with ASEAN governments and civil society. Direct pressure has not worked so well. For ASEAN, the alternative to turn to support from the US, China, and Japan made the threat of being cut off from European financial assistance bearable.

The EU is not the only game in town and the Southeast Asian market has successively gained commercial attraction over the last decade. The group has enlarged its economic market and, with the anticipated ASEAN + 6 free trade agreement, drifted away from the EU’s commercial sphere of influence. This growing power symmetry between the two regional organizations contributes to the ASEAN governments’ ability to stonewall Brussels as soon as their political core interests are at stake.

But the EU is still one of the major actors in the international arena and it can do much better than being played off or toned down by ASEAN. It should continue to try and instill more normative substance into the interregional cooperation, but do so through changing its tactics. Rather than altogether abandoning its commitment to the founding principles in its foreign relations, the EU is better served going the domestic track. Three complementary steps may pave the way to the effective spread of human rights, democracy and combating climate change:

1. Put your own house in order! To serve as normative example abroad, the EU has to assess its own policies against the principles it credits itself with. Self-evident examples include the EU migration policy and the enforcement of human rights and democracy standards in its member states.

2. It’s the economy, stupid! The stabilization of the European market is essential to enhance the EU’s leverage abroad. Access to the largest market in the world is the only substantive incentive the EU can offer to countries abroad in return for improved human rights and democracy performance. The Eurocrisis weakens EU-ASEAN relations in more ways than one. Increasing divergences in the global economic outlook between EU countries have motivated some better performing member states to revert to a pursuit of their narrowly conceived national rather than European interests. Speaking in a unified voice and wielding the carrot of market access to a flourishing economic bloc is key for the EU to being a force in human rights issues.

3. Create domestic demand for human rights and democracy in Southeast Asian countries! Bottom-up processes are more likely to trigger far-reaching normative change than conditionality. The EU and its member states should foster a critical and sensitive civil society in the ASEAN member states. In order to do so, the EU and its member states should expand youth, education and cultural exchange programs between Southeast Asia and Europe. 

Subscribe to our newsletters