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"Assessing the Impact of Brexit for ASEAN-EU and ASEAN-UK Relations", a Commentary by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/27, 24 June 2016

In a move that would reverberate in the British Isles and around the world, the British electorate voted today to “leave” the European Union (EU) in what was billed as one of UK’s most significant political events in a generation. The BBC reported that the “leave” campaign garnered 52% of the votes against a turnout of 72.2%, signalling the beginning of the end of UK’s flirtation with European integration. Although the results of the referendum is not legally binding, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to honour the results, and has even resigned to allow a new Prime Minister to lead the process of the UK exiting the EU. The new Prime Minister would kick-start the process of UK’s withdrawal by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty through a formal notification to the European Council. As this process is being played out in Brussels and London, what does Brexit mean for ASEAN-EU and ASEAN-UK relations?

First, ASEAN’s relations with the EU will not be affected. The EU is one of ASEAN’s ten Dialogue Partners, and it would be “business as usual” even after the instruments of withdrawal were successfully completed between London and Brussels after many years of negotiation.

Second, the UK will lose its formal affiliation with ASEAN when it ceases to be a Dialogue Partner- a status it currently holds as a constituent of the EU. The UK would have to apply to “rejoin” ASEAN as a Dialogue Partner in its own right. Upon granted this status by ASEAN, it would then need to apply for entry into the multiple fora led by ASEAN.

Third, UK’s separation from the EU will have a significant impact on its engagement with ASEAN as London will be disconnected from all ASEAN-led processes where the UK had heretofore participated as a member of the EU.  In practical terms, the UK will be left out of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) after its disengagement from the EU.

Fourth, as a strong advocate of free trade in the EU, UK’s absence may cause the momentum of EU’s economic engagement with ASEAN to slow down.  Brexit will also allow London to engage more closely with ASEAN since it will be freed from the constraints of EU membership.

The vote to leave the EU will effectively disengage the UK from ASEAN. However, given the UK’s longstanding and extensive engagement in the region, it would be difficult to envisage a situation where ASEAN will turn down the UK’s application to rejoin ASEAN as a Dialogue Partner.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.