Much ink has been spilled over the last two decades about the presumed importance of regional blocs. The European Union, the most famous of them all, seemed to be inexorably moving towards becoming a “United States of Europe”, as the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, once put it. The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in late 2015 to launch the Asean Community, and there were serious suggestions that the ten-country grouping should refer to itself as such henceforth to signpost its ambition to emulate the EU, which had previously been named the European Community.
Those two, along with the Gulf Co-operation Council, were probably the best known, but there has been plenty of focus in international relations circles on the many others, from the Economic Community of West African States to the Organisation of American States and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
There was a feeling that it was inevitable that these associations would become stronger, and that in a “world of empires”, as the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt has described the immediate future, smaller countries would need to band together in order to deal with big ones such as China, America and India.
But yet another thing the response to the coronavirus pandemic has revealed is just how truly – and surprisingly – weak these associations are. During the whole Brexit aftermath there were frequent declarations by ardent pro-EU supporters that not only were European identity and citizenship more significant than those derived from individual member states, but that they were somehow more noble. The nation state was passe, they implied, clung on to only by right wing nostalgics and racists and a handful of loony-left socialists.
When it comes to the greatest disruption of our lifetime, however, where has the EU been? Nowhere in sight. It is not just that the reaction to the pandemic has been completely uncoordinated and contradictory, from full-on shutdowns in some European countries to pretty much life-as-normal in others; several states also imposed bans on exports of medical equipment when Italy faced terrible shortages.
Ms von der Leyen castigated European politicians over this in a speech to the European Parliament last week. “When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves,” she said. “When Europe really needed an 'all for one' spirit too many initially gave an 'only for me' response. When Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair-weather union, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.”
This was shortly before EU leaders held an online meeting to discuss ways of acting together that was subsequently described by the Guardian’s Economics editor Larry Elliott as a “car crash”. The leaders failed to agree on creating a corona-bond that would pool risk, causing Mr Elliott to conclude: “The message being sent out is that Europe is a project for the good times and that when the going gets tough people can only really rely on their own government and the nation state.”
To give Asean some credit, it held a foreign minister level meeting with China on February 20 to deal with the spread of the virus, and agreed measures to co-operate in sharing information and best practice. With next to no public fanfare, that is happening. But there is no wider sense that there is an Asean-wide response to the crisis, with some countries pretending they did not have cases of the virus (until finally they had to admit they did), and hugely varied approaches to locking down, supporting businesses, and what to do about mass movements of people.
Multilateralism is always a path that should be pursued internationally, and Con Coughlin was right to argue in these pages last week that the G20 must take concerted action to tackle the pandemic and try to stem economic collapse. But it is clear that at the regional level, organisations that have sometimes made very grandiose claims for themselves – and I do mean the EU in particular – have failed.
I may be a Eurosceptic, but I would like to have seen a pan-European approach to this disaster, just as I would like to have seen Asean rise to the opportunity. Even without the UK, the EU has a population of nearly 450 million. Asean has around 650 million. It is not at all unreasonable that both groupings should be ambitious about their place in the world.
But the proposition that either should deserve the geo-political recognition of a permanent seat on a reformed UN security council, for example, is severely undermined by their lack of unity when facing what may well be the gravest threat in their histories.
It is acknowledged within Asean that it is an association with which elites in business, politics and academia are familiar, but that awareness of what it does and how it impacts the lives of ordinary people is pitifully low. Knowledge about the EU is far higher, both inside its borders and among its neighbours. But it, too, is essentially an elitist project – I would argue that anyone who puts a vision of a region over his or her own country is, by definition, part of a cosmopolitan elite – and when those elites cannot join together and be effective when they are most needed, their assertions of stature ring hollow.
I wrote last week that in the era of coronavirus, "big government" was back. Supranational or regional government, on the other hand, has never looked more like a concept that is insufficiently borne out by reality. Regional groupings have been tested, and their response has barely registered. They will have to do far, far more to be effective and beneficial to their populations in the future if they are ever to be relevant, let alone the global powers their fiercest advocates would like them to be.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum