Currently, there are over 200regional agreements are in existence with highly varied content and a richarray of geographical configurations. The is a tremendous increase in the numberof agreements in place over the past few years reflecting both an increase inthe number of agreements per country as well as an increase in the number of countries participating in trade.
Thereis a strong academic debate about the value of regional integration as representedby the numerous agreements. Some observers believe that regionalism iscomplementary to globalisation and will lead to a stable equilibrium. Othersbelieve that the growing number of these agreements is a cause for concern – “concernabout incoherence, confusion, unnecessary business costs, instability, and unpredictabilityin trade relations,” (Baldwin & Low, 2009)Regionalism is not a newphenomenon, though there is a consensusthat incidence of regionalism has exploded in the recent years. The origin ofregionalism can be traced back to the formation of European Economic Community(EEC) in 1958 with six member countries – France, Germany, Belgium, Italy,Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
It was originally proposed by France to Germanyin order to form a common authority for the steel industry. Another European BlockEFTA, with seven members, was formed in 1968 in order to counter EEC. EFTA was ledby the UK in the hope that it wouldretain sovereignty over trade policy while benefiting from a larger market.
However, this initiative was notsuccessful and the UK later joined theEEC as well (Carpenter, 2009). EEC led thefoundation stone for the formation of the present-dayEuropean Union. At the time, perceived to be political instruments, manyagreements were signed between 1955-74 by the developing nations on the ideological basis with little regard to tradeconcessions. For example, a tripartite agreement was signed between India,Yugoslovakia and Egypt – the leaders of these countries were pioneers of the Non-alignedmovement. In 1967, ASEAN was formed with five members with a primary security motive, but in 1978 a tradedimension was added to the agreement. In Latin America, LAFTA was formed whichenvisioned the establishment of a Latin American free trade area and commonmarket.It was during the 1980s thatregionalism truly expanded and deepened.
In Europe, EC laid plans forcompleting the move to a Single European Market for goods, services, capitaland labour. These plans instilled concerns in the rest of the world about the creation of a ‘Fortress Europe’ and that EC wouldtrade lesser with outsiders. These concerns led to the formation of CUSFTA withthe United States and Canada. In the1990s MERCOSUR countries were establishedled by Brazil and they entered into many Free Trade Agreements with partnercountries. During this period, there was a clamour among nations to enter intoFTAs with select trade partners. Compared to the first wave ofregionalism, which mainly addressed issues of political stability and security,the second wave has deeper economic integration, and efforts have been made forgreater trade and investment liberalisation (Cohn, 2012).
The currentstructure of EU, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), major tradeagreements of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), the efforts tointegrate Southeast Asian nations, and the South-to-South integration initiativesare all more focused on economic cooperationand trade. EU represents the mostcomplex regional integration initiative (RIA) with the establishment of a political structure for overseeing theharmonization of economic, social and political policies (Study Guide: Unit 6:Regionalism and Globalization). However, Brexit poses a question about thestability of the zone. EU has withstood many threats to its member nationsduring the recession. EU is formed on the foundation of neo-liberal policies; however,it is flexible in its approach due to the political institutions in place (van Apeldoorn, 2006).
With the adoptionof monetary union, and due to its social charter and political institutions, EUis much more than a trade and investment agreement. It is an attempt to forge aEuropean identity. This allows EU to weigh the benefits and detriments ofglobalisation and if needed take a resistant stand against globalisation.Unlike the EU, NAFTAcomprising of the United States, Canada and Mexico are purely economicagreements.
It does not have socio-political institutions that will address theissues faced by the member countries. Also, NAFTA lacks the financial resourcesto deal with economic restructuring. The unique feature of NAFTA is the inclusionof a developing nation along with two most developed nations of the world.
There is a strong debate about which country benefits the most and loses themost under NAFTA and there is a constanttension between the three nations. Currently, the issues within NAFTA areaddressed on a case-to-case basis with a short-term view. There is a need forcomprehensive, long-term framework in order to make NAFTA more than just atrade agreement.
UNASUR (the Union of SouthAmerican Nations) and ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of OurAmerica) represent the recent south-to-south RIA in the Americas. Both thesealternatives have emerged as “alternatives” to deal with economic andcommercial exchange (Rodriguez, 2008). UNASUR aims thecreation of a single market, infrastructure and energy co-operation, thecreation of the Bank of the South, and the creation of the South AmericanDefence Council to serve as a mechanism for regional security.
ALBA is based ona vision of a social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid. Theinteresting aspect of these blocs is the absence of any developed membernation. Southeast Asia has witnessedthe transformation of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as aneconomic free-trade area in the twenty-first century. The 1.9 billion memberASEAN is led by China and is the third largest trading bloc in the world. Regional integration can beseen the least in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Though there havebeen numerous attempts in these three regions for formation of blocs, they havenot been very successful. The African Unity entered into force in 1994 andsignalled the attempt of the African nations in joining the trend of regionaleconomic integration. Similarly, in the Middle East, the Gulf CooperationCouncil (GCC), comprising of six-member states was formed. In South Asia, SouthAsian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formed with eight memberstates, comprising of 1.
5 billion people. Though the regional integration inthese regions is not as strong as that in EU, NAFTA or ASEAN, the growing trendis to move towards regional integration.Hirst, Thompson and Bromleyhave provided the viewpoint that the world, in fact, is moving towards ‘SupranationalRegionalisation’ and not towards globalisation (Hirst, et al., 2009).
If this theoryholds true, it means that the there is no unified world economy, rather thereare a series of unified regions. They argue that the world is divided intothree significant regional blocs – North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific(mainly East Asia). They substantiate this theory by providing evidence thatthe bulk of international trade happens within each region and that financialborrowing by economies is seldomcross-border across regions.From the above paragraphs, itis clear that the origins, motivations and goals for regionalism aremultilayered and complex. They span across numerous factors such as political,cultural, economic, geographic or military reasons.
What is evident though isthat the growth of RIAs has not hampered the growth of globalisation so far (Carpenter, 2009). However, withdeeper integration and formation of RIAs, which call for an identity beyond thenation-state, regionalism has the potential to thwart the growth ofglobalisation. Or with the proposed theory of ‘supranational regionalisation,’there is also the probability that globalisation as it is currently definednever existed and it was confused with supranational regionalisation.