The over-internationalisation of the domestic affairs of ASEAN member states (AMS) and judgmental statements from the European Union (EU) on ASEAN affairs are ruining ASEAN’s reputation and undermining ASEAN centrality and integrity unless ASEAN itself is accepting to be a second-class community.
Many cases have indicated that the EU is on a bashing spree towards AMS and ASEAN. Such actions imply that the EU is setting the standard for ASEAN to comply, meaning ASEAN is becoming a second-class community vis-à-vis the EU.
At this point in time, the EU is challenging its relations with at least five AMS including Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines.
For instance, on 17 January 2018, the European Parliament voted on the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and on 10 June 2019, the EU Parliament passed the Delegated Act to restrict and ban palm oil biofuel altogether by 2030.
The Malaysian government has accused the European Parliament of promoting protectionism because other vegetable oils have not been included in the 2021 ban. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand claim the decision was taken to protect the flagging oil industries in Italy, Spain and Greece.
In a statement, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are reviewing their relationship with the EU and its member states. This has attributed to the derailment of the supposedly established ASEAN-EU strategic partnership in January 2019.
Ties between the Philippines and the EU have recently become strained. The EU has harshly criticised the Duterte administration for the war on drugs. In response, Duterte has rescinded European aid to the country to prevent it from being used by the EU as leverage to influence Manila’s internal affairs.
As a result, the EU has threatened to withhold the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), a trade preference that allows the Philippines to export goods to the European market duty-free.
In its Resolution adopted on 19 September 2019, the European Parliament “calls on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), including all crimes under its jurisdiction committed against the Rohingya, or to create an hoc international criminal tribunal; reiterates its call for the EU and its Member States to take the lead on the UN Security Council on the request to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC.”
The European Commission officially announced the launch of withdrawal procedure of the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade preferences from Cambodia on 11 February 2019 on grounds of alleged human rights abuse and shrinking of democratic space.
For the Cambodian government, the imposition on measures related to political situation in Cambodia has touched the core interest of independence and sovereignty of Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen said that: “Cambodia cannot exchange our independence and sovereignty with assistance or trade preferences from any foreign country. What Cambodia will need is greater cooperation that provides mutual benefits in all sectors and fields, especially in economics, trade, investment and people-to-people ties with all our key partners – without discrimination – on the basis of honest respect of the independence and sovereignty of each other.”
The above cases manifest the current disturbing and rocky relations between the EU and AMS. There are imperative questions for ASEAN to consider.
For ASEAN, can it sort out among themselves the issues that are challenging its own security and international prestige? Can ASEAN build a prospered, people-centered and prestigious community by its own without succumbing to external criticism and pressures?
Can ASEAN maintain its integrity by requiring external partners to adhere to the fundamental principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which are, among others, “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations”, “the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion”, and “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”?
Should ASEAN be open in such a way that it allows countries as far away as France and the UK to become direct parties in the South China Sea dispute? Should ASEAN accept to be treated unequally and continue to be a student of the EU or accept other external partners to do the same as the current conducts of the EU?
What should be the interest of ASEAN should it establish the ASEAN-EU strategic partnership while receiving constant judgmental criticism and condemnation from the EU?
Should ASEAN condemn the EU for the centuries-long colonialism imposed on AMS with one of the gravest human rights abuses, slavery, looting of resources, and mobilization of peoples in the region to sacrifice for the European’s World War I and World War II?
Of course, these questions are not for ASEAN alone. These are for the EU to reflect on should it continue to seek establishing an ASEAN-EU strategic partnership. The above questions do not exclude AMS from improving themselves on issues affecting their peoples.
But as an institution, it looks really bad if ASEAN cannot sort out their own regional shortcomings and be passive or reactive only to external criticism as if the EU is setting the standards for ASEAN to follow.
At the current stage, with the EU is pressuring some ASEAN members and violating the key principles of the TAC, the potential of the establishment of a strategic partnership is not viable in the near future.
ASEAN decides based on consensus and it foreseeable that with the current EU’s attitude, some ASEAN members are going to block ASEAN’s decision to upgrade a strategic partnership with the EU.
Leap Chanthavy is a political analyst based in Phnom Penh.