At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2016 a bouncing baby was born to Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). The baby will be christened AEC (Asean Economic Community). Welcome, AEC, to the world of multinational groupings intended for the economic development and growth of their member-countries.
The regional economic grouping that serves as the role model for all such groupings and that they want to match in success terms is the European Union, which used to be known as the European Economic Community. The Asean Economic Community is no exception. It seeks to become the Asian continent’s EEC.
That goal will be neither so easily nor so quickly achieved. EU’s journey to where it is today—the world’s second most powerful economic entity—was long and fraught with all sorts of difficulties and obstacles. Success and prestige by no means came overnight to EU.
That the road was long is brought home by the statement that EU had its beginnings in 1952. For those who love to do the math, that was 64 years ago.
1952 was the year when EU’s original “Six” (West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) decided to establish the first post-World War II economic institution in Western Europe. That was ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community). The United Kingdom joined ECSC not long after its establishment.
Arguably the most significant feature of the new regional institution was the inclusion of West Germany among its founding members. Prior to World War II, Germany had the second largest steel industry in the world, after the US. The statesmen and policymakers of Western Europe decided, in the immediate aftermath of the war, that if there were to be no more Adolf Hitlers and if Western European political stability were to be long-lived, West Germany had to be brought into the mainstream of Western European politics and economics.
Why coal and steel as the focus centerpiece of the first Western European initiative for regional economic integration? Several reasons. The first reason was that steelmaking was the region’s most important manufacturing industry. And of course one could not talk of the steel industry without taking into account the industry that supplied the fuel for the steel industry’s furnaces. Reason No. 2 was that in every one of the “Six” countries, steelmaking was an important industry. A third reason was that because of World War II most of the region’s steelmaking and coal mining facilities were nationalized, thereby making it possible for the ECSC member-governments to commit their countries to regional integration of the coal and steel industries.
ECSC was a huge success. For the first time in Western Europe’s modern history, here was an institution that bound together a major part of the regional economy. Where there was division and separate development, the governments of the regional countries were now meeting regularly and plotting a common regional destiny. The political fallout from a successful ECSC was enormous. With economic partnership in place and growing stronger, political and diplomatic partnership could not be far behind. And they weren’t.
My purpose in bringing up EU’s origins is to stress to Asean’s possibly misty-eyed policymakers and planners that the bouncing new baby called AEC has many tentative and shaky steps to take before it can begin to walk steadily and then run. As my narration has pointed out, EU’s founding fathers and earliest planners laid down a firm and strategically chosen foundation for the multinational institution that they were establishing. They decided that was needed to cement the economic ties between the member-nations was the binding together of a major element of Western Europe’s economic infrastructure. They chose the steel and coal industries.
During the past decades policymakers and planners, in dozens of meetings, have issued numerous declarations and put together numerous action plans. But nothing resembling an Asean counterpart of ECSC.
Truly, AEC has a long way to go before it begins to approach EU status. But it is a start.
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