Global comparison of regional governance arrangements

Regional intergovernmental co-operation has long underpinned global power dynamics, and the multilateral pursuit of peace and prosperity. It is widely understood that regionalism is an increasingly important layer between nation states and global systems, and yet there remains relatively little known about how these layers interact or how different regional entities compare in organisation and approach [1]. Worldwide, we have witnessed a resurgent wave of nationalism that has most recently been exemplified through Brexit, Britain’s popular vote to leave the European Union. At the same time, Pacific Islands Forum leaders have recommitted their intention to pursue deeper integration through the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. This paper draws on a comparison of different intergovernmental arrangements[2] to draw out common lessons in which to frame a conversation on what next for Pacific regionalism.


  • In such a complex study as regionalism there can be no simple benchmark of success, just as there is no linear guide to achieving supranational aspirations.
  • Regionalism is built through solidarity and tangible achievements, not through agreements without compliance nor institutions built in the absence of capacity and commitment.
  • Strength in unity needs to be viewed in terms of the inherent power and benefits of being part of the collective, mindful of the limitations of the weakest members.
  • The complex interplay between internal politics, socio-economic dynamics and wider global forces has resulted in regional efforts fluctuating between moments of advance, stagnation and reversal.
  • In order to rally around common challenges and opportunities, Pacific regional organisations and their members need to stay abreast of constantly shifting national, regional and global dynamics.


Similar structures, but different approaches
Each regional organisation seeks to forge its own unique identity. This is more evident in the various approaches to regionalism rather than the often similar structural elements, including legal framework, deliberative organs and institutions. All of the regional entities studied are now established in treaty form, and bring together heads of state and government as the principal decision-making body (see Table 1: Regional organisational structure) with an executive or secretariat charged with coordination and implementation of leaders’ decisions (see Table 2: Regional co-operation measures). The European model stands as the oldest and deepest form of integration to date. A consequence of centuries of conflict that culminated in the Second World War, it took over 40 years to unite the many elements of regional cooperation under what is now the European Union. During this period, amidst a sense of post-colonial solidarity and Cold War positioning, the concept of regionalism spread across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific. The integration in Latin America also stems from this period, although the process was somewhat stymied by a competing sense of pan-Americanism led by the United States. Shifting US foreign policy together with the rise of the BRICS[3] garnered momentum behind the 2011 formation of the Union of South American Nations, known by its Spanish acronym UNASUR. It is evident that each regional organisation has seen its legal framework and structure evolve in response to shifting circumstances, solidifying purpose, and in some cases growing membership. This process of evolution has generally kept true to the founding aims, although the UNASUR has also demonstrated a clear expansion in scope to deepen and accelerate political and economic integration along the lines of the European Union model. 

Table 1: Regional organisational structure


Date founded

Organisation type and membership



Principal decision making bodies

Association of Southeast Asian Nations


Intergovernmental organisation with
10 members
2 observers

State building, accelerating economic growth and  social progress, alongside the protection of regional stability and the peaceful resolution of differences.

Bangkok Declaration(1967)
ASEAN Charter (2008)

ASEAN Summit (heads of state/government)
Coordinating Council (foreign ministers)
Community Councils (political-security, economic, socio- cultural)

African Union
(from 1963-2002 was known as the Organisation of African Unity)


Continental union comprising
54 members
8 observers

Unity and solidarity to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of all African states, and promote peace and economic development.

OAU Charter (1963)
Abuja Treaty (1991)
Sirte Declaration (1999)
Constitutive Act of the African Union (2002)

Assembly (heads of state/government), Executive Council
(state ministers)

Caribbean Community


Intergovernmental organisation with
15 members
5 associates
8 observers

Promote economic integration and co-operation, and to coordinate foreign policy.

Treaty of Chaguaramas
(as revised 2001)

Conference of the Heads of Government, Ministerial Councils

European Union
(originated from the European Coal and Steel Community)


Political-economic union comprising
28 members
(no associate or observer status exists)

Born out of the desire to make war ‘not merely unthinkable but materially impossible’ it was thought that pooling economic interests would raise living standard, and unite Europe to prevent future conflict.

Treaty of Rome (1957)
Schengen Treaty (1985)
Single European Act (1986)
Treaty of Maastricht (1992)
Amsterdam Treaty (1997)
Nice Treaty (2001)
Lisbon Treaty (2007)

European Council (heads of state/ government)
Council of EU (foreign and security policy)
European Parliament (legislature)
European Commission (executive)

Pacific Islands Forum
(prior to 1999 known as the South Pacific Forum)


Intergovernmental organisation with
16 members
3  associates
12 observers

Focus attention on areas of common interest, particularly in relation to trade, shipping, tourism, and education.

Agreement Establishing Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (2000)
Agreement Establishing Pacific Islands Forum (2005)

Leaders Forum (heads of state/government)
Ministerial Meetings, Forum Officials' Committee

Union of South American Nations (integration of the Andean Community  and Mercosur  formed in 1969 and  1991)


Continental union comprising
12 members
2 observers

Reinforce South American integration and participation in the international arena.

Cusco Declaration (2004)
Constitutive Treaty (2008)

Council of Heads of State and Government,
Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs,
Council of Delegates

ASEAN is often held up as a shining alternative to the European model. Both were founded on the premise of actively cooperating towards regional peace and prosperity, but have approached these mutual aims in divergent ways. Europe followed a path of establishing strict, rules-based institutional and legislative bodies formed by successive treaties. The union came into existence under the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced European citizenship and a standardised system of laws that apply in all member states. The more informal ‘ASEAN Way’ instead favoured non-interference and consensus over confrontation and compliance. For its first 40 years ASEAN existed without a legal and institutional framework, instead seeking to forge a common identity amongst its citizens and private sector through initiatives aimed at building a personal sense of community. The ASEAN Charter now exists alongside a regional flag, anthem and commemorative day, and with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, comes increasing talk of an ASEAN citizenship. However, given Southeast Asia’s more cautious approach to integration it is unlikely that there will be a common passport any time soon,[4] just as there is no serious consideration of a single currency despite ASEAN’s potential single market being larger than the European Union or United States[5] .


Table 2: Regional cooperation measures

CARICOM’s approach has been something of a hybrid of intergovernmental arrangements centred around resolving regional trade disputes, presenting a unified voice on the international stage, and supranational aspirations operating as a regional single market. The 2001 revision to the Treaty of Chaguaramas charted the

Caribbean Single Market and Economy, but progress has stagnated as decisions taken to deepen regional integration have not been enforced. Growing frustration and disillusionment among the business community and public has prompted Jamaica to launch a commission of enquiry into the national benefits of being in the regional bloc, including possession of a CARICOM passport. Prime Minister Andrew Holness, mindful that this review comes on the heels of the Brexit vote, says it should not be seen as a threat to leave, but rather ‘about strengthening Jamaica’s position within the regional integration process’.[6] The vacuum between the theoretical promise of integration and the disappointing results to date has been CARICOM’s lingering issue. Repeated assessments have pointed to recurring themes thwarting progress, including: very high degrees of economic differentiation among member states, working language barriers, limited regional and national capacities, institutional stagnation, non-compliance to agreed directives and member states cautiously guarding national sovereignty.[7] These traits, not unfamiliar in the Pacific context, are also evident in the slow progress towards the formation of the African Union. The AU, like CARICOM, has set in place a supranational vision and established the basic elements of rules-based cooperation measures like those underpinning the European model, but its members have taken the more cautious and informal approach espoused in the ASEAN Way. The Pacific regional vision is less clear and institutional arrangements less geared towards supranational ambition than any other.[8] There has never been a plan articulating measures for a single market, currency or passport (for example), and the while the 2015 Framework for Pacific Regionalism re-affirms a commitment to deeper regional integration, it deliberately does not prescribe any particular form that this should take.

Beyond words, bricks and mortar

The intrinsic flexibility of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism is intended to provide the space for inclusive and frank discussions to inform and ultimately give rise to a common understanding of what structural forms will emerge from the Pacific regional trajectory[9]. This fluidity is in stark contrast to the more engineered approaches to regionalism witnessed elsewhere. The African Union and CARICOM have attempted to emulate the EU only to find pronouncements, treaties and agreements are meaningless without compliance and enforcement, and that institutions built in the absence of capacity and commitment serve as little more than physical monuments to unfulfilled promises. In this light, and in defence of the protracted journey towards the formation of a fully fledged continental union and government, AU leaders have now mandated that the process of integration ‘involves all peoples of Africa, including her Diaspora.’[10] Despite its relative informality, ASEAN has invested a great deal in building a common identity out of a diverse kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, religions, and political systems. At the heart of the ASEAN identity is ‘unity in diversity’, which has necessitated overcoming the barriers such diversity presents, often leading to criticisms from outside; especially in relation to its seeming indifference to the internal politics of its members and conflicts between them.[11] There are ASEAN institutions and symbols, but the real effort of boosting the sense of belonging to the region has been through dialogue between different civil society and business groups across member countries. ASEAN’s outreach is evident in the multitude of meetings that create and sustain innumerable formal and informal networks. Moreover, building popular support for regional identity underpins the intention for ASEAN nations to jointly host the 2034 football World Cup, and on the environmental front the designation of ASEAN Heritage Parks promotes the parallel objectives of community building, identity, and conservation management.

"Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity."
Schuman Declaration (9 May, 195)

Beyond dialogue, institutional frameworks and an integration agenda, the key determinants of regional identity and purpose rests in the benefits and services to national populations. People should expect greater availability of goods and services and at lower prices, together with more employment opportunities at home and within the region; something the CARICOM passport has seemingly failed to provide to the satisfaction of an increasingly regional-weary Jamaican public, and their political representatives. The existence of tangible benefits is clearly a factor in the formation and progress of regional groupings. Much like the early economic successes of the European Communities[12] sparked expansion interest across the continent, the enlargement of ASEAN in the early 1990s coincided with phenomenal economic growth among Southeast Asian countries. It appears that in the lead up to 2011, many South American countries were keen to benefit through closer ties with Brazil’s fast-growing economy and diplomatic clout. And just as regional euphoria came crashing down during the 1997 Asian financial crisis[13] , it will be interesting to see whether the momentum behind the UNASUR will wane in response to the reversal of Brazil’s economic, and perhaps geopolitical, prospects. Euroscepticism, meanwhile, has taken grip amidst politically fuelled concerns within the established (richer) countries over budget bailouts and contested perceptions that porous borders between vastly different economies is fueling a tide of unsustainable migration. Unlike the European Union, participation in the Pacific Islands Forum has to date not afforded the developing island member states access to the bigger economies of its metropolitan members, Australia and New Zealand.

Strength in unity, not just numbers

From the founding of the United Nations, member states have been organised into geopolitical regional groupings[14] that have evolved from an informal instrument to rotate and share positions, to become tactical negotiation and voting alliances. Voting cohesion, however, does not always reflect the regional makeup outside the UN, with a recent study finding ‘regional organisations play a subordinate role in UN General Assembly voting, with the sole exception of the European Union.’[15] Yet, the Pacific has established a very distinct voice in the international arena, primarily through its joint presence as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group in the UN. The PSIDS positioning is unique given it is not a formal regional grouping (such as the African Group) nor is it a recognised observer organisation (as the AU, CARICOM and the EU speak on behalf of their members), while the Pacific regional organisations that are recognised observers (the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Community) generally do not represent the views of their members in the regular business of the General Assembly. The weight of this special arrangement should not be undervalued, evidenced most recently by its leading role during the intergovernmental negotiations on the new global development agenda and sustainable development goals (SDGs). The PSIDS bloc has been widely applauded for ensuring a global goal on sustainable ocean management and the significant role in securing the two most contested goals on climate change (SDG 13), and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16).

Similarly, the African Union rallied around the international focus on the SDGs to forge a Common African Position[16] on sustainable development. Based on three years of consultation and deliberation, the common position was not only an instrumental force in shaping the global agenda, but also re-set a mechanism for rekindling the passion for Pan-Africanism, centred around the changing nature of Africa’s relationships with the rest of the world. This has been an important outward shift for a region long stigmatised as a myriad of sub-regional entities with cross-cutting memberships and competing mandates. The new regional strategy, Agenda 2063, recognises the role of sub-regionalism as critical building blocks for continental unity, seeking not to replace but leverage the strengths of the eight constituent Regional Economic Communities[17] that underpin the African Union. In the Caribbean, the integration achievements amongst the sub-grouping of eastern microstates[18] has set a benchmark for what is envisioned for the broader CARICOM bloc. While in the Pacific there is a growing appreciation of the role of sub-regional organisations, including the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Polynesian Leaders Group and Micronesian Leaders’ Summit, together with special interest groupings, such as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement on tuna fishing. Just as the dawning appreciation that sub-regionalism offers foundations for, rather than posing a threat to, regional unity, there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of the juxtaposition between regional integration and national integrity. Worldwide, academia, analysts and those eager to accelerate regional endeavours have lamented the particular importance placed on national sovereignty in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific with the treaty instruments of the AU, ASEAN, CARICOM and PIF all underscoring the predominance of national interests over regional objectives. Invariably comparisons are drawn to the European Union, which through its expansion has demanded the ceding of various elements of sovereignty in return for the prized benefits of membership - notably the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. Where these benefits are not evident or do not yet exist, a reluctance to yield national sovereignty is not only understandable, it is a fundamental duty bestowed upon governments in protecting the national interest.

Balancing multiple layers of identity
The complex interplay between internal politics, socio-economic dynamics and wider global forces has resulted in regional efforts fluctuating between moments of advance, stagnation and reversal as governments seek to balance shifting sentiments at home, regionally and on the globally. Immediately prior to the unexpected turmoil of Brexit, the European Union was solidifying its presence on the international stage, with the introduction of the functioning positions of EU president and foreign minister. The latter coincided with enhanced observer status being granted in the UN in 2011, affording the EU the right of reply and to speak on behalf of members in the General Assembly (see Table 3: External relations of regional organisations). Elsewhere, we have seen other examples of regional institutional arrangements being tightened to better coordinate foreign policy, develop common positions and pursue joint actions. The ASEAN Charter and ASEAN Economic Community have been viewed as a direct response to the ‘challenges posed by globalisation and multilevel global governance,’[19] together with increasing demands for a more assertive stance on human rights. Increasing strategic interest in a more contested Asia is also being countered through the evolving external dialogues, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three, Plus Six and Plus Eight, and the East Asia Summit, all of which are means of preventative diplomacy and regional confidence building.[20] The African Union, meanwhile, is following up on the acclaim for the Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda to revitalise its regional voice on international issues[21] and is seeking to better coordinate foreign policy without infringing on members’ rights to conduct their own international relations. In addition to maintaining a mission at the United Nations and special diplomatic status with the US and EU, the African Union plays an increasing coordination function between the often overlapping association of its members with other regional and intergovernmental organisations.

Table 3: External relations of regional organisations

What next for the Pacific?
The Framework for Pacific Regionalism has reset an open discussion on achieving deeper regionalism within the Pacific context. As reviews are undertaken at the regional level, it may be beneficial for member states to also assess national benefits of participation in regional and sub-regional organisations. Such assessments would not only strengthen each country’s position vis-à-vis the process of regional integration, but could also present valuable direction for the reorganisation of regional architecture so that it responds specifically to the needs of member states. Global experience would suggest that the pursuit of regionalism requires a clear vision that articulates exactly what that entails. Realising that vision will only happen if ambitions are viable, and met with political commitment and sufficient institutional capacity. Regionalism is by nature a complex and constantly changing process, making it essential that coordinating bodies and individual members keep track of competing national, regional and global dynamics. Most importantly, it is vital that the population is included through the active engagement of businesses, civil society groups and dedicated efforts to foster a sense of common identity and purpose. The next phase of Pacific regionalism needs to demonstrate clear benefits to the people it serves.

Author: Derek Brien, Executive Director of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.

This discussion paper was commissioned by the Forum Secretariat as part of a series to inform an analysis of regional governance and financing that the Secretariat is undertaking from 2016-17. The views presented are assigned to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Forum Secretariat.


  • Burmeister and Jankowski (University of Hamburg, 2014) [1]
  • The proliferation of often overlapping regional organisations makes it very difficult to make an exhaustive analysis. This study focuses on six regional entities chosen to provide different geographical and organisational perspectives. They are the: Association of Southeast Asian Nations, African Union, Caribbean Community, European Union, Pacific Islands Forum, and Union of South American Nations. [2]
  • Brazil, Russia, India and China, which together represent a significant share of the world's production and population initiated regular informal diplomatic coordination in 2006, leading to annual summits of heads of state/government. The first expanded BRICS Summit, with the inclusion of South Africa, took place in 2011. Some have suggested that the emergence of BRICS as a political-diplomatic force has signalled a new era of multi-polar global governance - see for example, Guerrero (Focus on the Global South, 2013). [3]
  • Prof. Likhit Dhiravegin (Siam-AEAN Institute, 2015) [4]
  • Asian Development Bank, 2015 [5]
  • Caribbean360 (6 July, 2016) - and Caribbean News Now (30 June 2016) - [6]
  • Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts (2013) The Politics of Integration: Caribbean Sovereignty Revisited, Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica [7]
  • Discussion Paper 15, Island Dreaming (PiPP, 2010) - [8]
  • Dame Meg Taylor in The New Pacific Diplomacy edited by Greg Fry and Sandra Tarte (ANU Press, 2015) [9]
  • AGENDA 2063: The Africa we want - [10]
  • Gillian Goh (Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, 2003) - [11]
  • Notably the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, which were the foundations of what is now the EU. [12]
  • Sandra Seno-Alday (The Diplomat, 2015) - [13]
  • Regional groupings within the UN have changed over time in response to expanding membership and shifting strategic alignment, with member states currently divided into five groups: African (54 members), Asia-Pacific (54), Eastern European (23), Latin American and Caribbean (33), and Western European and Others (28 plus US as observer) - [14]
  • Comparing Regional Organizations in the United Nations General Assembly – Is There a Shift to Regionalism? by Nicolas Burmester and Michael Jankowski (University of Hamburg, 2014 - analysed voting cohesion of the following regional organisations: African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, CARICOM, EU, Mercosur and the Pacific Islands Forum [15]
  • Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda - [16]
  • The eight officially recognised Regional Economic Communities (or subregions) are: the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). [17]
  • The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States is lauded for its coordinated foreign policy, common currency, central bank and supreme court. [18]
  • Dr. Jens-Uwe Wunderlich (Aston University, 2012) - [19]
  • C.P.F. Luhulima (Center for Political Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 2011) - [20]
  • Subsequent Common Positions have been delivered on humanitarian effectiveness ( and the world drug problem ( [21]




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