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Brexit's Lessons for ASEAN

Britain's vote to quit the European Union is seen around the world as a shock. It should not be. European voters over the years have repeatedly shown little appetite for their leaders' often-repeated goal of "closer, deeper integration." But public resistance was always ignored in favor of what became known as "the European Project."

The leaders of Southeast Asia should take note. While they press ahead with ambitious plans to merge the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into a single integrated economic market, they should avoid making the same mistake as the EU -- forging ahead with closer political union, backed by a huge and intrusive supranational bureaucracy, that the bloc's citizens do not want.

Right now there seems little chance of ASEAN following the EU's path. The ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta is a relatively tiny organization, with a staff of less than 500 people and a paltry budget of a couple of million dollars. The EU, by contrast, has evolved into a vast and sprawling bureaucracy with a budget of more than $150 billion and some 60,000-plus staff, working in areas as diverse as a European Parliament, a court system and police agency, a defense headquarters and even a satellite center.

ASEAN has been ridiculed for its weakness. Embarrassingly, its members have been unable to come up with a united position opposing China's assertive military moves in the South China Sea. Its tentative response to the plight of ethnic Rohingya fleeing Myanmar was a disgrace. A call last year by Malaysia's defense minister for ASEAN to set up its own peacekeeping force has been met largely with derision.

Yet ASEAN's gradualism might prove to be its strength. Its slow-moving, consensus-driven approach leads only to incremental change. But that could make it far more durable than the EU, where elites pursued their cherished goal of political integration without the full backing of its citizens.

As the Washington Post's bureau chief in Paris, I covered the EU and the Brussels bureaucracy from 2000 until 2005, and I was struck by how European leaders' enthusiasm for "ever closer union" and expansion to new members across the continent always far outpaced what most average Europeans said they wanted.

Time after time, when citizens were asked to vote on aspects of the "European Project," they said no, slow down. It was too much Europe too fast, and it was being shoved down the throats of the populace.

The Treaty of Nice, hammered out in a contentious late-night bargaining session at the end of 2000, was supposed to set the terms for growing the EU by 13 new members, mostly former East bloc and ex-Soviet Union satellite countries. But when the treaty was first put to a vote, in Ireland, the Irish resoundingly rejected it, by 54% of the vote. Europe's rules said that that every existing member had to agree to expansion, meaning that any country, even tiny Ireland, could veto the treaty.

Vote again

The EU's response to this clear exercise of democracy? They tinkered with the text, and sent it back to the Irish for a second vote the next year, when it passed. Most other EU countries got the message, and let their parliaments -- not the people -- decide on the treaty.

In 2003, I covered a referendum in Sweden over whether to join the euro, the EU's common currency. All the major political parties, the newspapers and the business community lobbied for a "yes" vote. But 56% of Swedes said no.

Later in 2005, Europeans were asked to vote on a new treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. The French and the Dutch voted overwhelmingly against it. So the leaders and bureaucrats reworked it, and made sure that the next time it was considered only legislatures, not people, had a say. The exception was Ireland, which was required by the Irish constitution to have a referendum. Again, the Irish people voted no, again the vote was repeated. And again, they delivered the "right" response the second time round.

The point of this history is that Europe's political and bureaucratic elites have shown for years what I consider to be a surprising contempt for the will of their citizens, who have repeatedly shown far less interest than their governments in forging a common European polity. So the vote in Britain should not really have come as a shock. The British were, in a sense, just following what the Irish, French, Dutch and others had done in earlier referendums.

Now that the British have voted to quit, look for Euro-skeptic political parties in other EU countries to start demanding that same right. That does not mean that the British and other Europeans are not interested in some of the benefits of EU membership. They are -- particularly when the benefits are tangible.

As I have written before in the Nikkei Asian Review, young Europeans are keen on the borderless travel that is possible across many of Europe's countries through a passport-free zone known as "Schengen." 

Generally, Europeans, especially young people, want to be able to work in other countries on the continent. Consumers want access to goods flowing freely across borders with tariffs. Businesses and farmers want to move their goods across frontiers with minimal red tape.

What people do not want -- and what a majority of British voters have just made clear in their referendum -- is an all-powerful supranational bureaucracy controlling their immigration policies, overruling their national court systems, imposing rules on issues such as the proper way to store cheese, dictating that people with diabetes cannot drive, regulating how much bananas can be bent, and making it illegal to label bottled water as good for dehydration.

People in general do not like government, and they chafe at silly or unneeded regulations. And when the government is seen as a faceless entity in Brussels, the hostility only grows stronger.

Southeast Asians may have it right -- going slowly, building an economic market first, and concentrating on the areas in which people -- especially young people -- want more opportunities, such as in education and employment.

The EU was seen by many, including myself, as a model of regional integration that ASEAN could follow. The Brexit vote turns that notion on its head. No country, no significant political constituency anywhere in Asia, is clamoring to leave ASEAN, because ASEAN -- weak and feckless as it sometimes seems -- is seen as offering people mainly benefits with no real drawbacks.

It seems that Europe can take a lesson from Southeast Asia

Keith B. Richburg is an author and former foreign editor of The Washington Post.

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