The debate about whether the European Union (EU) is a model for other regions has been around for some time. David Miliband, when he was British Foreign Secretary, suggested in 2007 that the EU should be a ‘model power’ rather than a ‘superpower’. The EU would show “other actors that European norms can also work for them, … provide economic incentives for adopting these norms” and “shape policies of global competitors by example and persuasion”.
But there are significant problems with classifying the EU as a model, as well as problems with creating an image of the EU as a model power.
Firstly, external perceptions of the EU in Asia do not often reflect, or culminate in a classification of an ‘EU model’. The realities of regional integration outside of Europe, such as in the case of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), do not sit well with ideas of mimicking or emulating a model.
Rather than copying the EU model, when ASEAN has responded to pressures such as changing international expectations of human rights protection, humanitarian intervention and sovereignty; questions of economic governance; and the effects of economic and financial crises, it has done so by simultaneously consolidating ASEAN’s normative integrity, the independence of the Association, and adopting best practices drawn from a wide array of sources.
The independence of ASEAN’s decision-making and its own priorities and objectives challenge the idea of an EU model for Southeast Asian regionalism. There is some evidence that it remains a source of inspiration and reference, but it rarely features in ASEAN elite narratives or official documentation.
When it comes to similarities, it is true that the EU and ASEAN have both used economic integration and community-building to foster and maintain security and further economic development.
In the broadest and loosest sense, the idea that the EU has been a model for Southeast Asian regionalism may have once had some legitimacy. But this claim would need proof of a causal relationship between ASEAN developments and EU influence. The substance of ASEAN integration, ASEAN’s priorities and norms, and institutional innovations all point to the significant limitations of any ‘model power’ of the EU.
It is difficult to discern a desire by ASEAN leaders to emulate the EU, even though many statements over the years have expressed admiration for the EU. Especially since the Brexit referendum, there is a rise in scepticism of EU-style regional integration. It is noteworthy that many recommendations that the EU constitutes a model come from within Europe, not Asia. Those outside of Europe have tended to refer to the EU as one regional body among many, and a possible source of inspiration and reference rather than a model that ASEAN has copied or followed.
Former Secretary General of ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, has long suggested that the EU is an inspiration rather than a model for ASEAN. Similarly, Singaporean scholar Reuben Wong has argued that the EU does not exercise ‘model power’ and that ‘the EU exerts some power over ASEAN – but merely as a reference point’. He argues that the EU has a passive rather than active influence on ASEAN. In our own research, we have shown that ASEAN, when learning from the EU and accepting its support for ASEAN integration, actively and judiciously accepts, rejects or adapts aspects of EU integration that suit its own context.
In other words, ASEAN officials and policy-makers have been more likely to turn to the EU for reference, support or inspiration based on functional utility rather than the normative attractiveness associated with models. They rarely refer to the EU at ASEAN events – such references tend to feature largely in joint EU-ASEAN official dialogues.
The EU has toned down its own language regarding a putative model over time. In fact, it has also shifted its approach to supporting Southeast Asian integration. Although the EU is a strong supporter of regional integration in Southeast Asia, over time it has made more reference to the fact that ASEAN has its own process to follow, and that European support should be guided by ASEAN, rather than the EU projecting a model. The EU still maintains its position on adherence to its values.
There has been considerable willingness on the part of ASEAN to learn from the EU. Visits such as those made by the ASEAN’s Eminent Persons Group for the ASEAN Charter to Europe in 2006, as well as visits by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) officials in 2011, 2013 and 2015, and a visit by ASEAN’s Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) in 2010 and 2014, all attest to this.
ASEAN also went beyond the EU in the search for inspiration for the ASEAN Charter, looking also to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) with its short constitution, which proved to be a more suitable format for ASEAN than the EU’s lengthy treaties. For an ASEAN official, interviewed by the authors in 2011, the EU offers lessons on what ASEAN should avoid: “Sometimes the EU experience is good for us because we learn what not to do”.
The use of regional ‘models’ should be treated with caution. Firstly, this practice emphasises emulation and downplays learning, mutual lesson-sharing and cooperation, essentially reducing the EU’s partners to passive mimics rather than dynamic innovators. It allocates all agency to the EU and effectively assigns a receptive or passive role to the other regional body, with little or no reflexivity.
It also creates subjective benchmarks which do not allow for feasible alternatives to a dominant, and in this case Eurocentric, experience to be given sufficient credit and attention. This is not to suggest a morally or culturally relativistic disregard for models, but rather an acknowledgement that adherence to, and support for, the intrinsic values of the EU can be pursued through other means than projecting an EU model.
Furthermore, other regional bodies may not share the values that the EU espouses, just as some would regard the EU’s institutionally embedded governance structure as not appropriate or exportable. The dangers of integration snobbery come to mind.
Finally, the question must be asked as to the source of the idea of a ‘model’: is it self-proclaimed, determined by those seeking a model or template, or is it created by outside observers? Unless all parties agree, there is a high probability that the credentials of any asserted model will be debatable, and partnership should instead be emphasised.
In a period of considerable global instability, regional tensions and governance challenges, regional bodies are seeking to achieve outcomes that are not exclusive to a nation state and that are not necessarily multilateral or global in scope. Each regional body is driven by historical factors, strategic considerations and varying concepts of governance, states, leadership, role and scope. Each has had exogenous and endogenous drivers.
To an extent, the EU has attempted to promote its experience as a form of external driver of ASEAN. But that experience is not a model.