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A case of failed interregionalism? Analyzing the EU-ASEAN free trade agreement negotiations

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In 2007, the European Union (EU) and the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started interregional negotiations on a free trade agreement, which failed 2 years later. Relying on document analysis and elite interviews with officials from the EU and ASEAN’s members, this article addresses why and the extent to which the interregional negotiations failed. By rooting the theoretical model in a power-based approach, the analysis demonstrates that the EU has attempted to secure its economic and regulatory power in Southeast Asia. In striving for such power, interregionalism was initially the intuitive way because the EU perceived ASEAN as a cohesive bloc. However, the EU’s ambitious vision for comprehensive agreements clashed with the actual heterogeneity of ASEAN member states. The failure of the interregional approach is, thus, a result of the EU’s delicate balance between political and economic interests in Southeast Asia, which it pursues with trade-specific issues.

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  1. The interviewer assured the interviewees complete anonymity so that the paper refers to the semistructured interviews by indicating the institutional affiliation, place, and date of talk.

  2. The paper assumes that the EU is a state-like actor in foreign trade. The EU actor-ness, which empirical studies have supported (Elgström and Larsén 2010; Meunier 2007), rests on the highly supranationalized trade policy (Drezner 2007).

  3. An alternative explanation for the EU’s use of interregionalism is the Commission’s limited resources. Assuming limited capacities, it is less costly for the Commission to negotiate one interregional agreement instead of ten bilateral agreements. This is plausible but cannot explain why the EU shifted to bilateralism after it invested 2 years into preparatory talks for an interregional FTA.

  4. Scholars have assessed the extent to which the EU-Korea FTA could have served as a benchmark for the EU-ASEAN FTA (e.g., Pollet-Fort 2011). Whether the EU has used this FTA as a benchmark is largely an empirical question. None of the interviewees reported such an impact. Rather, interviewees hoped that the EU-Singapore FTA would set a benchmark for further bilateral FTAs after 2009 (Interview #9 2014).


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I am indebted to the Institute for European Studies for hosting me during my fieldwork in Brussels, Belgium, in March and April 2014, to Magnus Schoeller for his support, and to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on this article.

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Correspondence to Katharina Luise Meissner.

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Meissner, K.L. A case of failed interregionalism? Analyzing the EU-ASEAN free trade agreement negotiations. Asia Eur J 14, 319–336 (2016).

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