Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Mid-life reflections on ASEAN and the EU

Apichai Sunchindah, Jakarta

Indonesia is hosting in Jakarta this week the 15th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting to discuss developments in the relations and cooperation between the two regional blocs, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU). One interesting observation is that both entities are "middle-aged"; the EU will soon reach its 48th anniversary come March 25. ASEAN is now in its 38th year and will be 40 in two years time.

When EU celebrated its 40th birthday some eight years ago, The Economist ran a special series of articles on it. One of them had the headline Learning to love the EU, and contained expressions like "The European project was built by the elites; it has never sought or expected widespread popular support... Certainly, the EU is complex and hard to understand... The gap between the bureaucrat in Brussels and the man in the street is widening... So how can Europeans learn to understand it, let alone love it?...Europe needs to be explained to ordinary people...it is not the message that is at fault, but the failure to communicate it effectively."

Another article carried the heading Europe's mid-life crisis and included descriptions such as "Europe's people seem disillusioned with the whole Euro-business...a dangerous gulf has opened up between the Union and the concerns of its citizens... It all adds up to something of a mid-life crisis for the EU."

As EU was approaching 40, it was facing key issues on three fronts known as "pillars", i.e. common foreign and security policy, economic and monetary union and cooperation in justice and home affairs. Interestingly, ASEAN had recently made declarations to achieve a full-fledged ASEAN Community by 2020 based on three pillars of cooperation in the political/security, economic and socio-cultural spheres, broadly mirroring the EU pillars.

As ASEAN's 40th anniversary nears, the association also faces some tough challenges in terms of addressing the political developments within one of its member states as well as a key 2007 deadline for economic integration whereby the more developed 6 countries of ASEAN are supposed to remove completely their import tariffs for the 11 priority sectors that have been agreed upon earlier.

Here in ASEAN, a paper recently tabled at one of the ASEAN meetings acknowledged the challenge that "after 37 years of promoting cooperation in Southeast Asia, ASEAN has yet to gain substantial public recognition of its contribution to the region. In fact, not many people outside the official ASEAN circles know of ASEAN's existence, let alone appreciate ASEAN's achievements... Obviously, ASEAN has to do more in promoting public awareness and common regional identity... Therefore public apathy about ASEAN must be overcome urgently. Only when there is sufficient public interest and support to ASEAN can the noble endeavor of building an ASEAN Community by the year 2020 be achieved satisfactorily."

One ASEAN observer noted, "ASEAN remains principally a project of government leaders and technocrats...with little effort to make it a popular democratic enterprise. Not surprisingly, 'ASEAN brotherhood' has very little resonance at the grassroots."

He went on to say, "There are many things we can learn from Europe, including some negative lessons, and one of this is that in the first three post-war decades, integration was a largely technocratic process that was not subject to democratic surveillance. As a result the EU develop its notorious 'democratic deficit', resulting in the well-known disaffection among many electorates in Western Europe that have stymied more comprehensive political integration and monetary unification."

In late 2004, former EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom was appointed as the first ever EU Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communications. This came about from the realization that an effective communications strategy to sell the EU to a still sizable number of skeptical and less than enthusiastic European public was sorely needed particularly with the European constitution coming up for referendums and ratifications in each of the member states in the months ahead. Interestingly, she has even co-authored a book last year entitled THE PEOPLE'S EUROPE or Why is it so hard to love the EU?

In the UN, there is someone in the person of Shashi Tharoor, the Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information who is in charge of the organization's communications strategy especially for ensuring coherence and effectiveness of the UN's external messages.

However, within ASEAN, there is no such equivalent position like that in the UN or the EU yet although the need for effective communications of ASEAN to the public is gradually being recognized. It is hoped that with the numerous impending challenges facing the association as it approaches "mid-life", it could even be a good opportunity to finally get some credible corporate communications strategy off the ground soon. After almost 40 years of cooperation, there should be something good to show and tell in a manner readily comprehensible to the layperson.

It looks like institutions, big or small, all face the equally important task of explaining itself in terms understandable to the stakeholders and the public at large. Perhaps this is something organizations like the UN and EU, which are more experienced and endowed in this regard, could offer their assistance and provide advice or lessons learned to ASEAN.

While promoting visibility and better appreciation of ASEAN-EU cooperation activities are no doubt beneficial, the ultimate barometer of success is probably how well ASEAN and EU are communicated to and understood and accepted by their respective constituencies.

The writer is the Executive Director of the ASEAN Foundation located in Jakarta. The views expressed in this article are his personal one. He can be reached at apichai.sunchindah@aseanfoundation.org.





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