What ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’s Triumph’ Warn Us About ASEAN Community



Shane Preuss, Research Intern at ASEAN Studies Center, Gadjah Mada University

One year after the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, it is important to ask what relevance the political events, which have occurred in Europe and the USA this year, hold for ASEAN integration. These events have seen reassertions of national identity and the exaltations of the nation-state as a defense against supra-nationalism and globalization.  

How can we reflect on ASEAN’s slogan of regional integration, “One vision, One identity, One community” in light of Brexit, rising Euroskepticism and the election of Trump in USA?

The ‘Nation’ State vs ‘Globalists’ – A Reflection from Recent Surveys

Against this backdrop it is important to acknowledge the significance of rising nativism in Europe and the USA and the associated backlash against political establishments and institutions believed to represent globalization and supranationalism.

The EU is suffering from a crisis, wherein its political legitimacy has been tarnished by a perceived disconnect between its citizens and the institutions, which govern and represent them. Euroskepticm continues to rise throughout Europe. A Pew Centre poll of 10 EU countries, published on June 7th this year, found that 49% of Europeans viewed the EU unfavorably. Negative opinions are most pronounced in France, where 61% of the population hold this view and in Greece where the opinion is shared by 71% of the population.

The migrant and refugee crisis has brought anti-EU sentiment to a head, especially amongst rising  right-wing and nationalist movements. However, euroskeptism can be found both on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum, albeit predicated on many different issues. These issues range from negative economic expectations and rising inequality to cultural, migration and security concerns.

Defenders of the EU, extol the political project’s virtues as a champion of peace, prosperity, human rights, justice and democracy, however it is failing to maintain legitimacy amongst the citizens of its members states. Increasing numbers of Europeans hold the perception that the EU does not serve their interests.

This perception is spurring a defense of the nation-state. 42% of respondents in the Pew poll agree they want more powers returned to national governments, while only 19% wish to see a closer Europe and EU expansion through the transference of more power to the regional body.  

Lessons from ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’s Triumph’

Brexit was driven by rhetoric focused on reclaiming of national sovereignty. This rhetoric, and the campaigns victory, is all the more significant given the result caught the majority of elected representatives in both major parties unawares.

The same rhetoric appeared in Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump’s vision to ‘Make America Great Again’ was predicated on the notion of putting ‘America First’. With these slogans Trump promoted the role of the ‘Nation’ State as an institution designed to serve its citizens first, appealing to a wide range of Americans, disenfranchised with the political establishment.

Trump’s further appeals to the ‘forgotten man and women’ was also, arguably, a key to his victories in the rust belt states, the region of the country worst affected by globalization and free trade.  It is also important to note the rhetoric of many of Trumps supporters, and the media voices sympathetic to him, who use the term ‘globalist’ to describe their ideological opponents.

Lessons for ASEAN?

What lessons can be learnt from these recent developments in the Europe and the USA? Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the significance of ASEAN’s slogan for a region like South East Asia. ASEAN began as a pragmatic, rather than idealistic, political agreement amongst governing elites concerned with preserving regional peace and the stability of their rule.

It is significant, therefore, that an organization, created by, predominantly, post-colonial states, to aid projects of state-building and national identity formation, is now extending itself to become an engine to foster a second level of identification, the ASEAN identity. Creating such an identity is ambitious political project. Collective identity is often understood as key part of creating resilient communities, and the facilitation of such a shared identity will play an important role in managing the multitude of ethnic, religious and identity differences in one of the most diverse regions in the world.

However, Gita Murti, an Indonesian foreign-service officer who has worked in the Directorate for ASEAN Political Cooperation, argues, it is “easier to agree upon a vision than to form a true collective identity.” The Vision of ASEAN integration remains an elite driven agenda, but one which rests on support and engagement of the public, the constituents of the ‘one’ identity and community, in order to achieve political legitimacy.

The events in Europe illustrate the difficulties of creating regional institutions, which, represent, and benefit a wide range of, often divergent, interests and concerns, while Trump’s victory and Brexit testify to the continuing belief that the nation-state remains the best-placed political institution to address the interests and concerns of its citizens.  

The creation of the ASEAN community, like the EU, is of course an elite driven process, but it requires engagement from the public for its legitimacy. It represents a shift from the pragmatic and political, State-Centred ASEAN to the ideational and social project of creating a ‘people-centred ASEAN.’ This people-centred, or people-orientated ASEAN, is premised, not only a promoting ASEAN, and ASEAN identity amongst the regions citizens, but also on delivering concrete benefits for these people.

However, in 2012, ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan, warned that the birth of the ASEAN Community will create “winners and losers” with some communities ready to take full advantage of the new economic advantages available, while others may be left behind. He cautioned that growth of inequalities and disparities between communities may jeopardize the sense of belonging to the process of regional integration.

In light of these warnings, it is important to reflect on how the recent, and unfolding, attacks on supranationalism and globalisation in Europe and the USA hold relevance for ASEAN and its slogan of regional integration, “one vision, one community and one identity.”