What ASEAN can learn from the Brexit vote

As member states seek to protect their national interests, the benefits of ASEAN membership must be made clearer.

The result of the 2016 UK referendum in favour of leaving the European Union stunned Europe and the world. In the context of the current uncertainty surrounding the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU regarding Brexit, expectations and understandings of regionalism and integration will need to be reassessed.

In Asia, Britain’s exit will have far-ranging effects on how European integration is perceived and trigger reassessment of ASEAN’s own endeavours. How will ASEAN cultivate its relationship with the EU? If, in the words of the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, what does it mean for ASEAN?

The EU has always been perceived as primarily an economic entity characterised by trade and aid in its engagement with ASEAN. There is a certain persistent scepticism in Asian official circles about Europe’s approach to integration, especially regarding its pooling of sovereignty and decision-making on what are regarded as core roles of the state.

T-shirt with 'Stay' written above European flag

Pro-EU demonstrators gather outside Parliament in London for Human Rights Day. The demonstrators believe their human rights are being threatened by the Brexit decision. Picture: Jay Shaw Baker/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The Brexit crisis has to an extent reinforced the view that the EU is not a body to be replicated elsewhere, and that ASEAN and the EU are distinct. But this idea has been around for quite some time in Asia.

While some argue the Brexit referendum result has threatened the EU’s example of regional integration, the idea that the EU was ever an archetype of integration has long been dismissed by scholars, practitioners and the public. Brexit will likely consolidate existing perceptions in Asia about the EU — that European style integration has little relevance for ASEAN, even though there are some areas of inspiration — as opposed to triggering novel insights with regard to the nature of regionalism.

But ASEAN must remain modest. ASEAN’s differences and idiosyncrasies have been emphasised to prove that similar exits by ASEAN states are unlikely in contemporary Asia.

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