Any comparison between Europe as integrated in the European Union on the one hand and Asia, as exemplified by ASEAN, on the other hand is at best gratuitous and at worst odious. […] I said then that this was a bit unfair, since ASEAN was never meant to be like the EU […]

I want to introduce the intention of this article with this quotation by the former Secretary-General of ASEAN, Rodolfo C Severino (Severino: 2003, in Koh: 2007, p. 67). I believe this is not a pretentious comparison between EU and ASEAN policies on the management of natural resources, to enlighten the merits of the first and the shortcomings of the second. Far from that, this is an attempt to look at two approaches on environmental governance derived from different cultural, economic and political features.

“Environmental governance” is the term that comprises the whole decision-making process dealing with the management of natural resources. This includes the interactions among multi-level actors (i.e. local, national, global actors), which are generally represented by the state, the market, and the civil society. Policies regarding environmental governance focus on  the final aim of sustainable development, while adopting rules and procedures of good governance (ICUN: 2014).

Since the 70’s, the United States of America has led the construction of the appropriate institutional framework for the management of natural resources, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in the ‘90s, gave the opportunity to the European Union to take the lead  in innovating the field of environmental policies (Vogler: 2005). From this moment on, regional institutions such as the EU have demonstrated how issues such as pollution and health protection need to be reconsidered at an international level. Indeed, the regional dimension also seems to offer an appropriate solution: a mediation between global and state actors, establishing norms and policies able to tackle specific environmental issues. Simultaneously, yet less outspoken than its European counterpart, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has evolved built its own way of managing of one of the richest regions of the world in terms of natural capital.

In order to give an overview on the environmental governance systems adopted by the EU and ASEAN, three main features are analysed: the relationship with the framework proposed by the United Nation, the implementation methods, and the nature of the  support these institutions need for improving the practice.

On the first issue, following the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment, the United Nation provided regional institutions with a legal basis to form working groups for addressing international challenges. In fact, the European Communities started a close collaboration with the UN by formally introducing the environmental policy in 1986, participating at global meetings also in representation of Member States, becoming a sower of norms, and by incorporating neighbors in its policies (DelMartino: 2009; Vogler: 2005). Also, the ASEAN association was assisted by the UN program in the elaboration of norms regarding the protection and management of natural resources, adopted officially in the late ’70s. However, in a second moment, the external aid was confined to an informative scope, limiting it to general guidelines and principles (Elliott: 2003).

Second, the two regional organisations typify  very different implementation systems. The one used by the EU can be summarized in one word: inclusion. The EU has built a multi-level interaction system with a collective decision-making process that aims for coherence and harmonisation among Member States, challenging them not to lag behind. Since the ‘70s, the Community has opted for an interventionist approach, integrating new environmental principles (i.e. polluters-pay, emission certificates) into its constitutive Treaties. In case of non-compliance, the Union intervenes to take the “outlaw” back on track. In other words, the EU acts to share the responsibility with the Member States, mediating between the global and the national level (Holzinger et al: 2006). On the other hand, the ASEAN chose to elaborate its own particular approach, commonly known as “The ASEAN Way”: the prioritization of the non-interference norm and of national laws over regional ones. There is general caution in establishing institutional structures, or in enacting  legally binding agreements that could restrain the exercise of national sovereignty over the natural capital. Although this form of “weak” regionalism could be felt as less formal or pressing by members, it ultimately also means that the tasks of implementation and enforcement of new regulations must be dealt with at a state level, resulting in  a heavy burden for developing countries  (Koh: 2007).

Third, what are the main causes hampering a faster development of regional environmental governance? As one may guess, a general lack of political support, and the prioritization of economic interests over environmental ones, are responsible for the slow elaboration of new environmental objectives. In the case of the EU, a major problem is represented by the continuous negotiations by political leaders in order to obtain exceptions for specific economic sectors in crisis (DelMartino: 2009). When it comes to the ASEAN, the issue becomes more complex. Its environmental policy and governance lack adequate implementation means, and suffers from little technical resources and expertise. For example, this became evident when wide haze occurred almost every two years, despite the prior signing of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (2005). The Association needs better coordination, more monitoring capacity and sanctioning measures, in addition to secure institutional funds, which at the moment mainly originate from dialogue partners, such as Japan or Canada, or NGOs (Elliott: 2003).

In conclusion, the EU and the ASEAN gave life to different identities governing the field of natural resources, according to the level of socio-economic development of their respective Members. Whereas the EU aims at harmonizing the regional environmental policies in order to maintain its leading role in line with the UN, the leaders of the ASEAN emphasizes that sense of stewardship towards the immense natural capital of each Member State. Therefore, intensifying the collaboration among regional institutes can certainly bring new perspectives and solutions about the protection of natural capital for the future generations.

Benedetta Mantoan is from Italy. After a bachelor degree in Japanese Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, she is now a recent MA graduate in “Politics, Society and Economy of Asia” at Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her strong interest for East and Southeast Asian culture is combined with a genuine passion for sustainable development and nature conservation.


  • Delmartino, F. (2009). Environmental Governance: A Multi-level Governance Approach. EU Studies in Japan2009(29), 1-18.
  • Elliott, L. (2003). ASEAN and environmental cooperation: norms, interests and identity. The Pacific Review16(1), 29-52.
  • Holzinger, K., Knill, C. & Schäfer, A. (2006). Rhetoric or reality?‘ New governance’ in EU environmental policy. European Law Journal12(3), 403-420.
  • IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature], 2014. Environmental governance. Available from: [Google Scholar]
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  • Severino, R. C. (2003). Speech delivered at the joint conference of INSEAD and the Asia-Europe Foundation on Regional Integration in Europe and Asia: Past, Present and Futures, Singapore, 7-8 July, in Koh, K-L. (2007).
    Vogler, J. (2005). The European contribution to global environmental governance. International Affairs81(4), 835-850.

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