Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Asia Must Follow Europe’s Lead Down the Rocky Road to Union

Few people would have predicted that the establishment of the European Common Market would signal the arrival of a new dawn for Europe.

Half a century after signing the European Economic Community Treaty, a fully ratified Treaty of Lisbon came into force on Dec. 1. If Asia were to follow a similar path, it would mean it will be 2060 before Asia appoints a single president, selects a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, brings in a legally binding charter of fundamental rights, introduces qualified majority voting, or decides to replace literary references to the term “community” with the more politically ascendant “union.”

It has taken over 50 years of deal-busting, concession wrangling, regulation building diplomacy for the European Union to finally come to its senses and set itself on a trajectory that enables its global neighbors, partners and antagonists to start taking Europe seriously. Maybe the continent’s historical break from the internecine wars of its past has truly arrived. The timing is rather interesting. The Asian century is about to enter its second triumphal decade just as the European colonial era has ended.

The Lisbon Treaty supposedly enacts a set of fundamental values such as respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This includes acknowledging the rights of persons to belong to minorities. Article 2 goes further, stating, “these values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

Lisbon is the seventh treaty starting with Rome in 1957, Merger 1965, Single European Act 1986, Maastricht 1992, Amsterdam 1997, Nice 2001 and Lisbon 2007. For the uninitiated, there are 27 member states with the noticeable exception of Turkey (still waiting on the sidelines), and Hermann Von Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister is the newly elevated president of the European Council with a term of two and a half years, creating a de facto replacement for the present rotating presidency.

But things are never as simple as they seem. There is still no single European constitution and Lisbon is still considered to be a reform treaty. The European Community Agreement has now undergone a feat of metamorphosis and turned itself into a Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the Treaty on the European Union stays the same and the Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes legally binding. The more interesting and poignant provisions are that climate change has finally become an objective, perhaps in time for the UN conference in Copenhagen. And, as if to give greater voice to the people and assuage fears of rule by Brussels, a citizens’ petition of more than one million signatories must now be considered by the commission.

It is also likely that the European Parliament ends up becoming more powerful in the future. In a strange balancing act, national parliaments may end up more engaged with European issues through increased scrutiny time for European legislation, with an ability to compel the commission to withdraw legislation. All this is very interesting for the initiated few. Yet, for Europe’s 495 million inhabitants, covering 27 nation member states, living in over four million square kilometers of territory, does any of the above really matter?

This brief history lesson takes us back to the original case for integration. Less than five years after the end of World War II, French statesman Robert Schuman made a profound statement. “World peace can only be maintained through creative efforts as deep as the dangers threatening this peace. By pooling core economic sectors and creating a new high authority whose decisions will bind France, Germany and the countries wishing to join, it will be possible to achieve the first foundations of a European federation indispensable for the preservation of peace”

Ironically, as Germany and France moved toward pooling their coal and steel, the raw materials used to fuel the earlier conflict, many of the EU’s current member states were behind the Iron Curtain. At the same time it is worth remembering that today’s Europe contains many inhabitants who hail from nations that threw off their colonial shackles and replaced them with hard-earned independence and statehood. The idea of a European Union suggests that they are over this legacy and can look forwarding to a new chapter in European history.

This new beginning was celebrated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Francis Fukuyama’s much quoted exposition for the end of history “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” If the birth of a new Europe is a step in that direction what lessons does it hold for Asia’s future evolution? Does it signal the possibility of an Asian Union a la Europe in the near future?

As a trading block there is no parallel to Asia. China and India alone have 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion people, respectively, living in 12.9 million square kilometers and this excludes Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In terms of constituting Asia, an enlarged trading block could easily include Australia and New Zealand, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and of course Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and nations such as Myanmar and North Korea. Asia already has its economic powerhouses such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. More significantly its main players China and Japan, India, South Korea and Indonesia will ensure that whether it is the G-2, G-7, G-8, G-20, International Monetary Fund, World Bank or their global equivalents, Asia is granted a permanent seat at the global policy, energy or security table.

But things are not so simple. Political union is another matter. Let’s consider the evidence. Since 1945, the end of World War II, there have been innumerable conflicts, wars and famines in Asia. On the new global battlefield for resources, the political theater is about food security, energy, water, economic stability, health and education. The re-emergence of nationalism as an alternative to traditional ideologies such as Marxism or fascism may well spell the beginning of new conflicts based on national power and boundaries.

The many political, religious and economic differences that exist in Asia make the concept of a union difficult to imagine, yet there are serious consequences for failing to create a single unitary Asian voice, especially against a backdrop of rapid urbanization and fast growth. Over 50 percent of the planet’s inhabitants now live in cities, of this more than 18 of the top 25 megacities of the future are all in Asia. The continent’s share of world GDP is on a double digit trajectory upwards, with China poised to overtake Japan as the world’s No. 2 economy next year. In India, manufacturing will actually overtake rural production, and this is in the middle of a global recession.

Regional discussions have already kicked off, with Japan and Australia proposing different models of development. Yet be it an East Asian Economic Community or an Asia Pacific Agreement, both concepts are still far from an all encompassing fully integrated union.

There is undoubtedly a shift in perceptions, not only as the pendulum of power swings in Asia’s favor, but also as the debate includes organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This may even become a story of where China leads others will gladly follow.

If this is an Asian century, it may well be an opportunity to write a new legacy for the world and to commence a dialogue to create a peaceful nexus of trading blocks. The Asian Union will start as Europe did half a century earlier on the road to coal, iron and steel, but if peace prevails it may not take 50 years to reach its equivalent of the Lisbon Treaty. By Ashish Mishra

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