This article was first published in the May 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

‘Will fitting the EU’s teeth give the ASEAN Economic Community the bite it is lacking?’ was the theme of the ACCA President’s Debate, which was held outside the European Union (EU) for the first time. ‘This year, I wanted to take the debate wider, especially as ACCA and I have been following the development of the ASEAN Economic Community [AEC] with a keen interest,’ said ACCA president Datuk Alexandra Chin.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprising Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, is the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. The AEC, which was formally launched in December 2015, aims to achieve a single, integrated market with free flows of trade, capital, investment and skilled labour.

‘Do we need to go all the way to the extent of the EU?’ asked Senator Dato’ Sri Abdul Wahid Omar, minister in the prime minister’s department, in his keynote address. ‘No. The model we have is appropriate at this point in time. Maybe we don’t have teeth that are sharp enough, but what we need to ensure is that the objectives that we outlined for the AEC are achieved.’

The EU and ASEAN display different values and aspirations, said Dr Jayant Menon, lead economist in the economic research department at the Asian Development Bank. ‘Integration in the AEC is a means rather than an end. ASEAN is pursuing globalisation as the end, and the mechanism is the AEC.’ So ASEAN has set up non-preferential trade accords; for example, it has chosen not to mirror fortress Europe and remained very open. As a result, trade and investment have grown strongly.

Dr Steven Everts, senior adviser on EU-ASEAN, and the Asian Regional Forum (ARF)’s alternate senior official in the Asia Pacific department, European External Action Service, described the EU-ASEAN bond as a partnership with strategic purpose. ‘If the EU-ASEAN relationship was a stock, I would buy it!’ he joked.

Dr Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Centre, remarked that the EU-ASEAN agenda could be enhanced if ASEAN were more unified, he said, singling out strong leadership and robust structures as prerequisites. ‘Policy differences, reliance on consensus and weak institutions will hinder it from achieving its full potential,’ he said.

Isham Ishak, deputy secretary general (trade), at Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, remarked: ‘Unlike the EU, which is very institutionalised, people here are not ready for a mechanism where companies can directly take legal action against the government.’

Cameron made the point that successful integration depends on conquering hearts and minds. ‘People don’t fall in love with a single market,’ he said. ‘You must make the market relevant to people.’ By breaking down the barriers to free flows of people and capitals, the AEC could gain the support it needs.

Everts suggested, tongue in cheek, that social relevance could be fostered through forging personal ties. Schemes such as the EU’s Erasmus student exchange have brought together many couples from across the continent and led to the birth of a million babies – including Everts’ own children.

In the long run, the key to change is in ASEAN’s hands. ‘How the AEC develops is up to ASEAN itself,’ Cameron concluded. Good intentions along with aid, warm wishes and lessons learnt from the EU can only go so far if ASEAN itself stymies the integration process.

Nazatul Izma Abdullah, journalist