Asean leaders. Photo: Xinhua/Zhang FengguoSoutheast Asian nations living in the shadow of the world’s fastest growing economies — those of China and India — want to form a single market along the lines of the European Union. Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations met at the end of last month and signed trade deals and agreements to form an integrated economic community, without a common currency, by 2015.

For most of its 42-year history Asean has been a toothless tiger, making decisions by consensus. But two years ago it adopted a new charter, and this year it plans to launch a human rights body. The economic union it has announced would give substance to the group and is an ideal worth striving for.

Along the path of closer union Asean could benefit from the experiences of the European Union, its successes and failures. The key question is whether the Asian countries will be willing to surrender part of their sovereignty to a common institution such as an Asian Commission, as European countries do to the European Commission.

It is no small thing for a country to sacrifice some of its autonomy for the common good. Europe was able to do so because it had the right men at the right time at the right place. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Schuman, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi, and the man behind the Schuman Declaration, Jean Monnet, were ready to act and reconcile right after the Second World War. Europe was crying out for reconstruction, was in danger of being trodden down by the communists and feared a possible third world war if Germany should re-arm.

Robert Schuman Picture: WikipediaThese men were all four convinced Catholics and envisioned a unification that would provide peace and stability based on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. This implied a policy of reconciliation that would at the same time provide for interdependence among the member states.

Do the diverse Asian cultures involved in Asean — those of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia — have the civilisational resources to cooperate and reconcile, as Europe, with all its imperfections, has done? Would the economic cooperation it aspires to reflect common cultural values such as the founders of the EU shared?

Within the broad context of post-war Europe’s Christian civilisation Catholic social doctrine stressed the key values of human dignity (not just rights) and solidarity (rather than communism as the alternative to rugged individualism). Economic cooperation among member states of the European Community would be the means to safeguard and increase human dignity and man’s further development. Solidarity went even further: the European Commission would be the supranational organ to which the member states would hand over part of their sovereignty on the issues agreed upon. The European Court of Justice would provide the juridical framework and take binding decisions for all EU members concerned even beyond national interests.

In the fields of economics and legal order the EU has been a great success. The EU is known worldwide as an economic giant. Also from the juridical point of view the EU is exemplary in that Community law is directly effective in the national legal order and national legal procedures. This implies that private parties may rely on the application of directly effective provisions of community law or judgments of the court of justice in their national legal order. Community law has priority over national law. This juridical aspect makes European law unique.

Arguably this daring project has succeeded because the European Union is the secular heir of Christendom. Is there anything comparable in the background of the Asian nations?

Of course, Europe cannot draw forever on the capital of a civilisation it no longer really acknowledges. Although the EU nowadays stands strong in many areas, it shows a surprising lack of political face, and this is due to neglecting its roots and identity. European member states find it very hard to agree on issues like enlargement of the Union, the degree to which to live up to solidarity, the need to live up to a Christian concept of human dignity and other issues that refer to the order of morality and politics.

The EU is increasingly aware of its lack of identity and is beginning to recognize its own inclination to focus primarily on the economy as such instead of what the economy is for — that is, the citizen and his or her human dignity with its transcendent link to God. To regain this focus on man would also bring an attitude of greater solidarity towards countries inside and outside Europe.

Asian countries could learn from Europe’s successes and failures. They could take the way of economic co-operation as an example in so far as it is not to the detriment of the citizen. Also an Asian Court of Justice along the lines of the European Court of Justice would be needed for the success of Asian unification. They further need to be willing to surrender part of their sovereignty to a supranational organ like the Asian Commission. This will necessarily foster their interdependence.

Asian nations can thus succeed at economic, legal and political unification if — and I would say, only if — they have a common identity that transcends those categories and a morality by which it is supported.

One more thing seems necessary: wise and committed leadership. Is there an Asian Robert Schuman to take up the cause of Asian unification? Asia is hit severely like all other parts of the world by the financial crisis. So now is the right time for the Asian Schuman to stand up, to shake hands and take the lead in this initiative.

Dr Margriet Krijtenburg is a Lecturer in Spanish & Core Course on Europe in the Academy of European Studies, University of the Hague, the Netherlands.

Margriet Krijtenburg studied Spanish philology at the University of Utrecht and wrote her doctoral thesis in Salamanca about the Spanish philosopher and writer Unamuno. To understand his thoughts...