SINGAPORE — Recent referendums in both France and Netherlands dealt a blow to European integration as voters overwhelming rejected the proposed EU Constitution 55-45 percent and 64-37 per- cent, respectively. Nine countries, including Germany, Spain and Italy, have already approved the constitution via a parliamentary process. Britain, Denmark and Luxembourg, which had planned to hold referendums, have now canceled them.
The surprising opposition to the EU Constitution, which had taken months of negotiations to create, could set back EU integration, weaken the EU economically (as shown in the euro’s plunge on world markets) and diminish the EU’s credibility and reputation (particularly in view of how the latest summit in Luxembourg collapsed in open dissension).
Leading members of the EU, however, including Germany and France, have vowed to press on with the process of uniting Europe, although the European budget for the next eight years lies in shambles and future European architecture is mired in controversy.
How can East Asian leaders, who will hold an inaugural East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur this December to discuss the creation of an EU-style regional trade bloc, avoid a similar debacle in the future? There appear to be at least four lessons that they can draw from recent European developments.
First, the massive rejection of the EU Constitution by French and Dutch voters appears to be linked to the fact that the process of European integration lies solely in the hands of the European elite (leaders, parliamentarians, political parties and, most importantly, the European Commission bureaucracy in Brussels) rather than in the hands of common voters. Popular sentiment against the commission is particularly strong, as a majority of French and Dutch voters believe that its members are chosen by their governments out of political compromise. Hence the commission is seen as being unaccountable to them, and the EU project itself is viewed as elitist and no longer “connected” to the common people.
A fundamental lesson for East Asian leaders is the importance of building a regional bloc around the common citizenry, involving a majority of the people in the process of constructing the grouping’s economic, social, cultural and political pillars. The enactment of a Brussels-type bureaucracy aloof from the feelings and needs of voters must be avoided. East Asians also seek greater accountability and good governance, thus a “progressive” institutional framework for East Asia is preferable.
Second, as the French and Dutch people were among the six founding members of the union, it is significant that the EU Constitution was rejected by them. Those who rejected the constitution reminisce about the days when the union was a small and tightly knit entity. They view the EU Constitution as a “political project” aimed at absorbing the post-Cold War Central and Eastern European states into the union rather than bringing concrete benefits to the citizens of current members.
This brings to mind another lesson for East Asia: A small entity may be better than a massive grouping. Initiating a massive trade bloc might have the advantage of power projection onto the rest of the world, as it would easily comprise one-third of the world’s population (with China and India as members), but it is questionable whether the citizens of such a community could forge common bonds that transcend nationality.
Third, as a regional identity evolves, nationalist sentiments must be reduced. The EU has enjoyed some success in forging a common European identity, even in nationalistic France, where a majority of French say they believe in Europe even though they have rejected the proposed constitution and the direction in which the EU is developing.
On the other hand, East Asians, especially Northeast Asians, would have enormous difficulties trying to mold an “Asian identity” today. Because of historical, territorial and political disputes, a wave of nationalism is sweeping Japan, the Koreas and China. Under these circumstances it would be impossible to mold an East Asian identity when so much divides rather than unites these countries. The situation is not necessarily better in Southeast Asia, given the poor relations between Thailand and Cambodia, and the standoff between Indonesia and Malaysia.
Fourth, regional integration is always easier during good economic times, as the citizens of member countries are more open to accepting regional projects. The adverse socio-economic situation in France had much to do with the strength of the “no” vote. Many French voters were concerned that cheap Polish, Hungarian or Slovak labor would cost them their jobs. Farmers and labor unions expressed their worries openly. In the Netherlands many voters feared the constitution would result in wanton immigration and Dutch interests being threatened by the larger EU members, such as Britain, France and Germany.
The final lesson for Asia is to choose the “correct” moment to launch its regional project and proceed decisively during good economic times. More must be done to reduce perceptions in smaller Asian countries that their more powerful neighbors could pose economic or political threats.
As East Asian leaders meet in December to lay the groundwork for a regional trade bloc, they should draw useful lessons from the difficulties that Europeans face in their integration process today.
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