ASEAN Got Multilateral Cooperation Right – The EU Got it Wrong

Soros invokes a far right false dichotomy 

Controversial currency speculator George Soros recently authored an article stating that the European Union (EU) is on the verge of collapse and even went so far as to compare what is happening in Europe to what happened in the Soviet Union in 1991. This fatuous comparison is yet a further example of how the ultra-liberal Soros is co-opting the language of far-right conspiracy theorists in order to bolster a liberal cause that is losing rather than winning hearts and minds in a politically confused Europe of 2019. The seemingly counter-intuitive phenomenon of the self-styled king of western neo-liberalism invoking the language of the far-right is new, but it does in fact predate Soros’s article on the EU.

Speaking at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos in late January, Soros aped the language of far-right American conspiracy theorists in stating that China’s so-called “social credit” system is a social ill. Clearly, Soros sees China as competition to his network of western fiscal hegemony whilst the western far -right sees China as a threat from a traditionally racist viewpoint. But while the Sinophobia of Soros and that of the far-right comes from a different place, the self-evident reality is that Soros is willing to use popular far-right language in order to maintain his relevance in wider debates on geostrategy. In this sense, by struggling to remain relevant in a western world that is turning its back on liberalism from both the left and right, Soros’s political survival instinct has led him to adopt the language of his right wing political adversaries in an attempt to co-opt their growing audience.

Unlike the paranoia of Soros and his far-right “comrades” in outlandish rhetoric, the fact of the matter is that the EU should not be compared to nor contrasted with the Soviet Union as they had different origins, served a different purpose and had a different guiding ideology. It does however help to remember that in 1991, a referendum to maintain the integrity of the USSR saw 78% of voters electing to retain the USSR (with an 80% turn out of all registered Soviet voters). This is not to say that 78% of all Soviet voters wanted to maintain a clearly broken system, it simply meant that they wanted to remain united in a single united state.

Likewise, in spite of Brexit, the majority of those in the EU as a whole do not actually want to go back to an era of totally detached nation-states. Instead, there exists a growing popular trend which rejects an EU that has become a political behemoth obsessed with red tape, as opposed to a body merely acting as a laissez-faire guarantor of people-centred (as opposed to corporate-centred) free markets. People are disenchanted with an EU that is increasingly about isolation from global markets rather than immersion into a modern world in which new innovations are increasingly coming from Asia. People are disgruntled with an EU that is increasingly out of touch with the common man and woman on issues ranging from non-European migration to declining living standards and overall, people are getting fed up with an increasingly undemocratic EU that simply will not listen to widely held concerns among regular people with no specific political alignment.

In this sense, the Soviet people did not want their union broken up in 1991 and nor to the European people want their union to break up in 2019. The difference is that while the USSR was broken up due to a treasonous and illegal plot called the Belavezha Accords hatched by Soviet Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, Soviet Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich and Soviet Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk (with the full backing of the United States) – no such plot exists in the European Union of 2019. Furthermore, China, Russia and the United States do not want to see the European Union fail, whilst multiple nations sought the breakup of the USSR. Yet crucially, most Europeans want the EU to reform. In this sense, Brexit was more a feeling of exasperation by a British public that never felt as they were a fully fledged part of the EU than it was a rejection of the basic principles of free trade and healthy relations among neighbours which is all most Europeans want in terms of multilateral cooperation.

Thus, the EU needs less centralisation not more, it needs to go on a bureaucratic diet rather than become even more bloated, the EU needs to slow down in terms of its ambitions, the EU needs to become more democratic, the EU needs to be more flexible in balancing the desires of its members and the EU needs to go back to basics across the board. In this sense, the EU can learn much from ASEAN.

ASEAN’s founding 

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) formed in 1967 as a very loose union of anti-communist south east Asian states. Specifically, ASEAN was formed as a means of creating peace between Indonesia and Malaysia in the aftermath of their infamous Confrontation, but by the turn of the 21st century, ASEAN had expanded to include Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei, in addition to its founding members Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and The Philippines.

As ASEAN has grown, it has developed a model for cooperative development that is vastly different to that of the EU. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to say that not only is ASEAN’s developmental model different than that of the EU, but that it is also superior for the following reasons.

ASEAN’s consensus driven model 

In ASEAN, all decisions are made through a process of dialogue based consensus. If a unanimous decision cannot be reached, negotiations will simply continue until such a point that unanimity prevails. By contrast, the EU’s winner take all voting system gives more weight to larger countries which has made the EU a typically German dominated bloc of nations.

Because ASEAN leaders know that they must forge a consensus rather than simply win a majority vote, the negotiating and debating mentality within ASEAN is vastly more civilised and amiable than that of the EU, because it is known ahead of time that hostility will only prolong debates while the ability to compromise and reach out to one’s partners will help ASEAN progress as a whole. Furthermore, while EU directives are enforced unilaterally throughout the bloc, the ASEAN minus X format allows for certain economic decisions to be taken by a majority of ASEAN members, whilst those not ready for instant economic change in a specific area are allowed to operate outside of a specific economic agreement until such a point that the outlying nations are ready to join their ASEAN partners on a voluntary basis.

Slow and steady wins the race

The consensus model has made it so that while ASEAN’s decision making process is not as fast as that of the EU, it is ultimately more sustainable because it leaves no room for bitterness and feelings of defeat. In this sense, whilst the EU has moved too fast for its own good in areas ranging from monetary union, a common migration policy, a common diplomatic stance and now even a proposed common military union – ASEAN has by contrast proved that slow and steady ultimately wins the race.

Thus, while the EU established a fully operation common market prior to ASEAN, the step-by-step process to create an ASEAN single market is being done in such a way so as to allow matters to evolve naturally. In other words, as ASEAN’s leaders know that a fully functional single market will be a matter of life at some point, there is no hurry to ram an imperfect model down the collective throats of its members. ASEAN instead is waiting for real life conditions and idealistic aspirations to converge at a comfortable half way point before rushing into things.

Likewise, ASEAN has no concrete plans for monetary union, a fact that appears incredibly wise seeing as the Eurozone has been deeply flawed in terms of trying to create uniform economic results without first creating near uniform economic conditions throughout EU member states.

A union of equals rather than a monolithic super-government 

The EU is set up as though it is itself a government in spite of the fact that it is putatively “just” a union between sovereign governments. But with a parliament, Commission (the executive body), a President and the world’s largest bureaucracy, the EU has become a textbook definition of big government.

ASEAN does not have such bodies but instead continues to function as a free and equal bloc of nations that cooperate on an inter-governmental rather than a super-governmental basis. Because of this, ASEAN is not only far more cost effective than the EU, but it is far more democratic than the EU. This is the case because ASEAN does not pretend to be a parallel government to those in its member states. Instead, ASEAN is a multilateral forum where leaders of existing member states can cooperate in areas of mutual interests.

Outward looking rather than parochial 

While the EU has been successful in establishing free trade among its member states, the EU tends to be guarded and cautious when it comes to conducting free trading agreements with non-European nations. This parochial attitude of an economic “fortress Europe” runs contrary to the free trading philosophy that EU leaders continually preach.

While ASEAN leaders are less prone to preaching than their European counterparts, ASEAN has among the most dynamic free trading agreements (FTAs) in the world. Currently ASEAN has FTAs with China, Korea, Japan, India and Australia. While the EU has more FTAs than does ASEAN, a closer look at the parties to the agreements and one sees that the overall effect of Europe’s FTAs is generally less forward thinking when contrasted with what ASEAN has accomplished in helping to create a major epicentre for pan-Asian trading dynamism.

ASEAN’s libertarian philosophy 

Because the EU is a government over and above 27 (28 including the UK) pre-existing governments, like all bloated governments, the EU has a tendency to overstep its boundaries. Rather than just procuring trade, facilitating the movement of goods, services, capital and people and setting up basic standards of quality and safety in a common market, the EU passes copious regulations that are burdensome to small and medium sized businesses, a nuisance to individuals, a threat to basic liberty and adding insult to injury, all of these things are extremely costly to enforce.

It is bad enough when governments of nation-states become hyperactive in respect of meddling into the daily lives of people and private businesses, but when a super-governmental body like the EU does the same, it simply adds a further ball and chain to already over-regulated businesses and individuals. If one wonders why the EU’s economies are generally stagnant or contracting whilst ASEAN’s economies are experiencing rapid growth, the difference between the EU’s regulatory burden and ASEAN’s light touch approach is one such answer.

In this sense, ASEAN is a far more libertarian organisation when contrasted with the EU, as it does not intrude into the internal affairs of the businesses and individuals within its member states, nor does it even have the apparatus to do so if it wished. ASEAN’s members are socially, historically, religiously, culturally and politically diverse and in the true libertarian tradition, ASEAN is not trying to change this one bit.


In a rush to become an all important union of nations, the EU ended up giving itself tasks that were unnecessary in the first place. There was never a need to create a costly and undemocratic super-political body as a means to merely help promote the free movement of goods, services, capital and people within a common market. Furthermore, in a push for a mammoth currency union, EU leaders neglected to think twice. If they did, they might have realised that micro-currency unions among economically and socially similar EU nations would have been a far better idea than a single currency which attempts to cover nations that come from entirely different fiscal and monetary backgrounds.

Likewise, in its drive to become a parallel government, the EU has developed all of the bad traits of the worst forms of big government whilst simultaneously neglecting to listen to the democratic will of the people who are collectively saying “we want trade and contact with each other, but we want nothing more and nothing less”.

Like the tortoise and the hare, ASEAN has taken things slowly because its model is built on respect for its member states, respect for unique national characteristics and a win-win model of consensus that does not enforce a zero-sum mentality upon its members.

If one is looking to improve the EU, do not listen to George Soros’s horror stories which bizarrely ape the emotional rhetoric of the far-right. Instead, one should look to ASEAN: a bloc of nations that got all of the things right which the EU continues to get wrong.

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