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Brexit: Any Lessons for ASEAN?


4 December 2018

How likely is an ASEAN Brexit?
By Jan Willem Blankert, Analyst EU and Asia, author, former EU diplomat

People interested in Asia and ASEAN, watching the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, may wonder: if a member state of ASEAN (the ten member Association of South East Asian Nations) wanted to leave the club, could this lead to a process as painful and long as the UK’s farewell from the EU? And the next question: does ASEAN have a formal exit option? The answer to the first question is “it seems unthinkable”, to the second it is a simple “no”. 

The EU and ASEAN are often compared with each other. The two questions above seem a good opportunity to elaborate a little on some significant differences between the two.

The ASEAN Charter, which entered into force in 2008, doesn’t include an exit clause. So, the strictly legalistic answer to the question if an ASEAN member state can leave is “no”. The EU included an exit clause only in 2009, in its Lisbon Treaty. Before 2009, the EU (and EEC and EC before) had, like ASEAN today, no exit clause. In spite of this void there has always been the tacit understanding that no member state can be forced to stay in the EU forever against its will. The UK had its first exit referendum as early as 1975, only two years after it joined the then EEC. The question if the UK would legally be able to leave didn’t play a role during that referendum, exit clause or not. 

Similarly, also without an explicit Leave option in the ASEAN Charter, we can be confident that if an ASEAN member state would wish to leave (so far this is an hypothetical question, no ASEAN member state has ever suggested it was considering to leave), ASEAN member states would and could not force it to stay. 

In the case of ASEAN an exit arrangement could, we can safely assume, be concluded without much ado, probably within a few months and definitely without a painful negotiating process as in the case of the EU and the UK. The reason is that ASEAN is a much looser organization than the EU. “ASEAN draws inspiration from the EU, but the EU is not ASEAN’s model” as some ASEAN leaders have put it. ASEAN’s much more cautious attitude towards integration is sometimes seen as weakness. True perhaps, but although ASEAN’s caution and flexibility (not least the principle of “non interference” in other members’ business) may have disadvantages, there are advantages too.

ASEAN functions through inter-governmental cooperation. It doesn’t  have influential institutions at ASEAN level like the EU has at EU level (Council, Commission, Parliament). Only in the 1990’s, more than two decades after its birth in 1967, and after confidence between the members had grown, economic cooperation along with political cooperation was put more firmly on the ASEAN agenda. In the EU it was the reverse: the EEC (the early EU) started with economic cooperation and integration. Economic integration was seen and used as the way forward to promote and achieve greater political cooperation. Also, the EEC included from the very beginning clear supra-national elements and institutions, the European Commission with its own powers, limited as they were, and, for instance, its mandate to initiate legislation. ASEAN doesn’t.

One advantage of ASEAN’s loose structures is that commitments related to membership are fewer and relatively light and that it is, therefore, hard to imagine that a member state would feel the urge to leave. In addition, integration within ASEAN is, compared to the EU, limited and disentangling a leaving member state from the whole shouldn’t be too difficult.

ASEAN is sometimes criticized for its slow pace and low degree of integration. “ASEAN should get its act together and push ahead faster” critics say. Are those critics right? In a contribution to a publication on ASEAN and the EU, in 2007, I wrote: “Those who complain that ASEAN is too little too late, should perhaps think of growing criticism in the EU that it is ‘too much, too soon’”. Since then anti-integration voices in the EU have increased in force. In some EU member state there are political parties with a strong anti EU agenda who mobilize between 15% and 25% of the electorate. In June 2016, a small majority of UK voters voted for leaving the EU. 

Another big difference between the two is money. The total EU budget, the funding of activities and programmes at EU level (agriculture, research cooperation and support to poorer regions) amounts to roughly 1 percent of the EU’s GDP. ASEAN’s joint funding concerns hardly more than the financing of the modest ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. In addition there is some support for the poorest ASEAN members from voluntary contributions of richer member states. All in all, ASEAN’s joint funding is hardly more than 0.001 percent (1 thousandth of a percent) of ASEAN’s GDP. Another big difference: the number of staff in EU institutions is roughly 100 times the number of staff in ASEAN institutions, most of them are the 350 staff in the ASEAN Secretariat (staff of the European Commission is 30 thousand). A last number: the Lisbon Treaty comprises, when we include all previous EU treaties, which it encompasses, 3000 pages. The ASEAN charter, short and crisp, is no more than 50 pages. In short, the EU and ASEAN are very different organisations. 

ASEAN’s inter governmental character implies that part of the burden of membership is decentralized, dealt with by member states directly. In EU speak ASEAN has a high degree of “subsidiarity”. One example is how each organisation deals with languages. EU institutions have thousands of interpreters and translators under contract and all 24 official languages of the EU are dealt with. One simple sentence in the ASEAN Charter leaves this activity to the member states: “The language of ASEAN is English”. This also implies that ASEAN legislation transposed to, say, Thai language and Indonesian respectively, will at national level never be legally as perfectly equal as EU legislation in, say, Greek and German is. The latter has been checked and double checked by the EU’s group of “Jurists Linguists” (Linguistic Lawyers). Once again, the conclusion is that the two organizations are very different. Similarities should not make us think they are similar. Let’s have a closer look at how Brexit emerged and why it’s unlikely ASEAN could face it’s Brexit.

How Brexit happened

The UK has always been a peculiar member of the EU. In 1951, when the ECSC (the European Coal and Steel Community, the very first forerunner of EEC, EC and then EU) was formed, Britain stood at the sideline. When, in 1957, the six ECSC members started talks about the creation of the EEC (European Economic Community) the UK declined an invitation to join the talks.

When the UK sought to join the EEC in the 1960’s French President De Gaulle vetoed UK membership, because, according to him, the UK was too different from the then six EEC members. This in spite of the fact that the UK had been good enough to sacrifice many lives to liberate occupied France in 1944 and had gone out of its way to get the US involved in the battle to liberate continental Europe.

In 1973, with De Gaulle gone, the UK could finally join (together with Denmark and Ireland – all three had been members of EFTA, the European Free Trade Agreement). As early as in 1975, two years after joining, the UK government was forced to organize a referendum on the question if the UK should remain. With media in favor of “stay” 67% of the vote was for stay. Most opposition – i.e. “pro-leave” - came from the left side of the social democratic Labour party. 

Many in the UK continued fretting, however, not least about money issues, above all the EEC’s common agriculture policy, which took 70% of the EEC’s budget at the time. The UK, a major contributor to EEC funding, felt that, because it had fewer farmers than other EEC members, above all France, it didn’t get its “fair share” of the funds that were shared out. In the early 1980’s then PM Thatcher insisted “I want my money back”. 

In 1984 Thatcher got her “rebate”, a considerable discount on the “price” of the UK’s membership card – for which member states get a lot back in return, a subject UK politicians prefer to be quiet about to their constituents . The UK remained unhappy with the EEC system of support to the agriculture sector though. Developments in the 1980’s gave the UK enough ammunition to shoot at the EEC’s approach. It was the time of “milk lakes”, “wine lakes” and “butter-mountains”: subsidy driven over-production in agriculture.

In the early 1990’s the UK’s confidence in the EEC which became the EU in 1992, suffered two serious blows. In 1991, EU members agreed to, first, enhance political cooperation and integration and, second, to create a joint currency. During the negotiations (leading to the Maastricht Treaty), while Britain was considering if it could agree to a “common” currency and about to come around on this point, Germany, France and Italy agreed overnight to change “common currency” in the draft text to “single currency”, i.e. excluding any other currencies. 

This change was a bridge too far for the UK negotiators, who felt wrong footed. Consequently, the UK,, “opted out” of the single currency arrangement (which would eventually lead to the Euro). For many in the UK the Maastricht Treaty, including the enhanced political integration, went too far and received massive, at times hysterical, media criticism. With hindsight, the Maastricht Treaty can be seen as an early trigger sending Britain on its way to the exit.

A second blow followed in 1992 when Britain was forced out of the EU’s common exchange rate mechanism, whereby exchange rates of member states were flexible within certain limits, “the band”. In 1992 downward pressure on the British pound was such that it couldn’t be kept within the band anymore. The pound was devalued and Britain left the joint exchange rate system, which after “Maastricht” served as the warming up for the introduction of the single currency when exchange rates of participating members would be locked in for good after which they would be replaced by the single currency, i.e. the euro (agreement on this name took a few more years of debate).

In the UK unease and opposition against the EU gradually further increased. EU-skeptics turned their ire increasingly against EU regulation, including regulation. EU regulation was presented as nonsense “imposed” on Britain by “those guys in Brussels”. In the debate, outright lies were permitted long before fake news had become a common term. Decades ago, Boris Johnson, working as the correspondent in Brussels  for his British newspaper, invented the successful hoax that the EU was working on a directive requiring that all bananas should be straight. Irritation about money and regulation led politicians and citizens in the UK increasingly to complain about the “sovereignty” they had lost as a member of the EU. 

In EU speak EU members “pool” their sovereignty: they share their individual sovereignty to reach joint decisions. On matters that are not considered of crucial national importance, EU members can be overruled by a qualified majority. In the UK there was the ever growing perception that “Brussels” set the rules. Actually, UK political leaders were participating in the meetings where EU decisions were taken. Irritation about the integration achieved made the UK more and more averse to further integration of the EU. 

Most EU members feel that in a number of areas further EU integration is inevitable for purely practical reasons. Examples are 1) the incomplete architecture of the euro which implies the risk of new crises; 2) the recognition of diplomas and certificates throughout the EU (for university degrees much has been achieved, but much remains to be done for professional certificates) and 3) one common EU-wide Environmental Protection Agency. The Diesel Gate scandal is proof that without a common EU system carmakers, more powerful than their national agencies, may continue to cheat with their emission systems.

To mention one more area of irritation in the UK (and other EU members too, by the way): the feeling that the EU is properly handling the flow of refugees coming to the EU. In the UK, this was mixed with irritation among UK citizens about the immigration of citizens from poorer EU member states, who joined in 2004. For these intra-EU migrants the UK was a favorite destination, because UK employers were keen to offer them jobs and English was usually the foreign language they were better at than other languages. The above mentioned factors along with EU-hostile UK media and well-organised fierce campaigning finally led to the referendum and a narrow win of the Brexit camp.

Lessons for ASEAN?           

During the first twenty five years of its existence the EEC was often derided by media and public for its indecisiveness and slow pace of progress. Cartoons in the early 1980’s could show “Europe” sitting on a card moved forward by snails. Integration speeded up when Jaques Delors became commission president in 1985. During his presidency legislation was prepared and, subsequently, adopted by EU member states, at faster pace than before –  often with the full support of the UK government under Ms. Thatcher. So whereas, initially the European public and media mocked the slow pace of integration, today many feel things are going too fast.   

ASEAN’s looser organization and less stringent rules put it in the public perception possibly in a position similar to that of the EEC until, say, 1985: not that many EU politicians or citizens bothered about the EU, which mostly was seen as a far-away organization, which perhaps did a few good things. With the speeding up of the integration process, the existence and significance of the EU became more visible, which led in certain quarters (and especially in the UK) to aversion and an anti EU-mood. 

When we look at the question of the possibility of a Brexit-like situation in ASEAN, let’s remember that in ASEAN decisions are taken unanimously by national political leaders. In the EU, many decisions, especially concerning more technical matters, are taken with a qualified majority, so member states can be overruled. In addition, ASEAN leaders can, after a decision  has been taken not escape responsibility and blame “those guys in Jakarta” (the seat of the ASEAN Secretariat) in the way European political leaders tend to blame “Brussels” for decisions they have themselves been involved in.

A last important difference is that the European Commission as the “guardian of the treaties” has considerable influence. Being the guardian of the treaties means that the Commission can police member states.  This policeman’s role is, for instance, the reason that EU Commissioner Timmermans tries to keep Poland on a democratic course. The European Commission is a much more influential and visible – and therefore not always loved - player than the ASEAN Secretariat.

Conclusion: ASEAN and the EU are so different, that ASEAN Brexit is very unlikely 

To summarize: ASEAN and the EU are very different organisations. Membership of ASEAN is less demanding and influential for a member state than EU membership is for EU memberships. Moreover, in ASEAN decisions are taken unanimously, member states cannot be overruled. Given the loose, not-so-binding ties to the rest of the club make it hard to imagine that any ASEAN member state would ever consider to leave. And if it would, it’s withdrawal wouldn’t have to imply much more than withdrawing its staff from the ASEAN Secretariat and stop its modest annual contribution to the ASEAN budget. It’s seems quite likely that a leaving member state could stay a member of ASEAN’s free trade agreement (AFTA) if it wished. 

A Brexit-like scenario in ASEAN is also difficult to imagine, because ASEAN membership, without very stringent obligations, means a seat in a highly respected regional forum at political level, which, its economic integration achievements aside, above all a quiet, but formidable factor for peace and stability in the wider ASEAN region. As the neighbour of rising power China and under the pressure of far-away power US, ASEAN performs an impressive balancing act between the two. 

Whoever doubts the value of ASEAN, should try to imagine South East Asia and beyond without ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy as a bloc. ASEAN’s weakness is that, for instance, it hasn’t been able to tame Myanmar’s anti-Ronhingya rage. Its strength, on the other hand, is its balanced relationship with China. 

ASEAN’s own economic integration efforts, within ASEAN, aside, it has since 2011 been promoting the Regional Cooperation and Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) with sixteen countries participating (ASEAN10 + Australia, China, India Japan, New Zealand, South Korea. This upcoming trade agreement affecting an area of 3.5 trillion people gets much less attention in western media than failed trade deals undertaken by western leaders. This said, ASEAN’s contribution to the world is above all its being there. A world without ASEAN would be a lot less safe. 

Let me get back to the main theme: ASEAN and Brexit. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU  is a regrettable setback, but not more than that. UK citizens may have lost sight of the political importance of the UK being part of the EU. The political importance may have been overshadowed by EU integration nitty gritty, which was overblown by aggressively anti-EU UK media and politicians.     

What is needed more than anything else in both ASEAN and the EU today is visionary leaders like those who in the past, in both organisations, were able to push things forwards. I am afraid today visionary leaders are in short supply. This notwithstanding, let’s quietly and decisively continue to work on the good cause of integration, connectivity and mutual trust.