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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: October 18, 2010 NO. 42 OCTOBER 21, 2010
A Poor Model
In the midst of an international power shift, Asian nations must find their own way

ASEM FAMILY: Leaders gather at the eighth Asia Europe Meeting, a vital forum for dialogue between Europe and Asia, in Brussels on October 4 (RAO AIMIM)

The eighth Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) took place in Brussels on October 4-5. Leaders from all 27 EU member states, Switzerland and 29 Asian countries participated. The last such summit was held in Beijing two years ago. This most recent meeting covered improving global economic governance, sustainable development, global and regional issues, face-to-face relations between Asia and Europe and the future of ASEM.

European pessimism

On the European side, there has never before been such pessimism about the effectiveness of the EU and its ability to deal with challenges in the years ahead. Just five years ago, commentators wondered whether the EU may serve as a globally valid model for integration based on markets and economic development, leading to ever more similar political goals. Many senior EU figures spoke as though they believed the rest of the world should emulate the organization.

The economic crisis and recent monetary struggles with the euro, the EU's common currency, have badly damaged that confidence. As recently as 1990, the countries which are now members of the EU accounted for 40 percent of the world's GDP. Currently, that number is just over 30 percent. Even as a trade entity, the EU is declining, though it remains the world's largest trading block. If this goes, many ask, what else is left?

Talk of promoting EU values creates even greater confusion. In the past, the belief was the EU represented what other countries and regions aspired to: a strong rule of law, a vibrant civil society and powerful institutions able to challenge each other, so qualities of governance were high. The EU included countries that had few problems with corruption, and managed to deliver at least a reasonable level of equality to their citizens.

This year's economic crisis in Greece, a 20-percent unemployment rate in Spain, a contracting economy in Ireland, and varying amounts of government debt in France, the UK and Germany make it seem like the EU is slowly fading into insignificance. This can be seen on many levels of the EU. Nearly a year after its ratification, the Lisbon Treaty remains only partially implemented. The European External Action Service is still being set up. The dream of a common EU foreign policy remains as elusive as ever.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy may well have chaired the ASEM in Brussels, but the constant tension between him and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso are well known. Foreign dignitaries have to work out who is the most influential in each area in which they wish to transact business with the EU. And tellingly, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton was not present for the ASEM meeting—she was on a visit to South Africa.

Asian dynamism

Asian attendees at the ASEM summit were keen to tell their European partners that the EU mattered—and that it was needed as a counterbalance to the United States, and was a major economic party in its own right. In a meeting of journalists the day before the summit began, discussions focused on what the EU might do in its relations with Asia, and how it could increase effectiveness. One of the first problems participants identified was that while Europe has been a tightly defined geographical and political entity for many centuries, Asia straddles a region with vast populations and massive differences.

Even a brief glance at the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reveals a bewildering mixture of political models, economic structures and social conditions. The member nations range from one of the poorest countries in the world, Laos, to one of the richest in per-capita terms, Singapore. The 10 ASEAN members discuss their partnership in terms very different from the EU. Sovereignty is critically important to them. Where they can find common interests, they are willing to work together. But the concept of an ASEAN legal structure that takes precedence over local laws—similar to the one in the EU—is simply not on the table. As one commentator said, "Sovereignty is not up for negotiation amongst any of the ASEAN members." That remains true of all Asian countries.

Therefore, even if we set aside these political differences, there is something much more recent that separates the EU and Asia. Simply put, the main areas for growth and dynamism are now in Asia. EU members, while they remain strong, look to be in decline and are unable to maintain high growth rates. Their consumer markets are mature and their populations have started to stagnate—indeed, for France, the UK and Germany, without inward migration, it would be very difficult to meet their employment needs. They are facing the problems that come with aging populations.

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