By Laura Allison-Reumann
The European Union (EU) has at times presented itself as a beacon of hope and admiration within and beyond Europe. Some of the stories that it has told about itself have implied that Europe’s integration experience is successful and useful for other regions, and assumed that other regions were drawing on the EU experience.
Yet the experience of regionalism in Asia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in particular, shows us that the EU is merely an example of regionalism, at best a source of inspiration, but not the defining regionalism paradigm.
This will come as no surprise to many, and to ASEAN in particular, but it is only recently that the EU’s regionalism support in Asia has taken a reflective tone where ASEAN’s regionalism priorities, vision and objectives are taken more into consideration.
The Evolution of EU Regionalism Support to ASEAN
The EU tells different stories about itself as a way to build support for further European integration, and to convince others of its role, place and influence.
These stories, or strategic narratives of the EU, are also intended for external audiences. The promotion of regionalism elsewhere, such as in Southeast Asia and via ASEAN, is one example. This EU narrative has evolved dramatically during the course of EU-ASEAN relations.
While the EU has long supported regionalism elsewhere in the world, the way it has done so has not always resonated with its interlocutors. In Asia, talk of EU expertise in integration and an EU model of regionalism has not been well-received, even if support and cooperation have been welcomed. ASEAN, as the main regional organisation in Southeast Asia, has been determined to follow its own path of integration, even in the face of changing EU narratives of regionalism promotion in Asia.
Recent crises, such as Brexit, have changed how the EU sees its position in the world, regionalism more generally, and its narrative of regionalism promotion. However, while the EU’s stories of regionalism may have changed in response to the EU’s experiences, Brexit and other crises associated with the EU have not had a significant impact on the way that the EU’s narrative is received, or on perceptions of the EU in ASEAN.
This is because ASEAN’s perceptions of the EU have not traditionally aligned with the EU’s promotion of regionalism narrative. Brexit, for example, is likely to lead to a consolidation of ASEAN perceptions rather than a dramatic shift in them.
The EU, arguably, now has a less Eurocentric view of regionalism – one that may allow for greater recognition of the plurality of regionalism design and more creative thinking on how regionalism can and should function, thus leading to closer and more constructive cooperation between the EU and ASEAN.
In this context, it becomes apparent that the EU has moved from a narrative towards ASEAN that emphasised a need to understand its own complexity and role, to a position of pride that placed excessive emphasis on the EU’s perceived successes, and not enough on the intended external beneficiaries of its narratives. Coinciding with the recent and ongoing wave of crises the EU is experiencing, its promotion of regionalism narrative has evolved into a more modest project of EU support.
A modest turn in the EU’s narrative
A more reflective EU is paying greater attention to its relative global position, even if it still needs to fully take into account external perceptions and the nuances of its interlocutors. For instance, in the Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia of 2012, the EU adopts a more modest tone than it had earlier with respect to regionalism support. It continues to justify regionalism promotion but not in the sense that the EU is simply a model, and there is more awareness that its counterparts do not need to look exactly like them.
The EU has also more recently given greater attention to ASEAN’s driving role in its region and ASEAN’s normative framework. Recent rhetoric from the EU attempts to emphasise that ‘ASEAN and the EU are not just natural allies but actually members of the same family who can learn and mutually benefit from each other’. Accordingly, the EU has increasingly placed emphasis on supporting an ASEAN-led regional architecture rather than replicating a European regional model. In its retreat from the model template, we see that the EU has become less Eurocentric in its narratives, focusing instead on capitalising on the differences among, and peculiarities of, regional integration.
Still, ASEAN perceptions of the EU and its narratives continue to differ from the narratives constructed by the EU. However, the modest turn in the EU’s narrative may provide the opportunity for further alignment between the two organisations. It may also help to ensure that narratives go beyond a self-proclaimed assessment of the benefits of regionalism based on the EU’s experience, and move to examining how regionalism support can best suit and benefit ASEAN.
This blog draws from the article, “EU Narratives of Regionalism Promotion to ASEAN: A Modest Turn?” published in JCMS.
Laura Allison-Reumann is Associate Fellow at the EU Centre, Singapore. She was previously Research Fellow at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Visiting Fellow at the University of Indonesia. She holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. Her research covers comparative regionalism, comparative federalism, and EU-ASEAN relations. She is the author of The EU, ASEAN and Interregionalism: Regionalism Support and Norm Diffusion between the EU and ASEAN (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).