Jose de Venecia Jr, speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives, foresees a future when representatives of Asian nations assemble regularly to make regulations that apply to member countries from Pakistan to South Korea.
Modeled on the European Union, the Asian union he envisions would have a parliament, a common market and even a common currency.
It sounds like an impossible dream, but de Venecia, who has long had a reputation in his home country for ambitious projects zealously pursued, believes it will eventually happen.
His principal ally in this crusade is Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly and a close friend of de Venecia, who calls the prince “a visionary.”
De Venecia came to Cambodia Thursday and departed Tuesday after several meetings with Ranariddh and other leaders.
He brought with him a delegation of Philippine business leaders, who plan to establish rice plantations, warehouses and milling facilities in Cambodia to help satisfy the Philippines’ chronic rice production deficit.
Also possibly on the horizon are direct flights from Manila to Siem Reap, the establishment of a Philippine computer school in Cambodia and joint oil exploration on Cambodian territory.
De Venecia, whose visit to Cambodia was his fourth, said he was impressed with the country’s stability. “With a modicum of agricultural modernization…Cambodia will again be a significant agricultural power in Asia,” he said. “The farmers must become agricultural entrepreneurs. That’s the key.”
De Venecia has given speeches about his idea for an Asian union in Europe and the US, in addition to bringing it up at gatherings of Asian leaders.
Now, he says, “I propose to go beyond the talking stage.” At a recent meeting in Bangkok, Asean parliamentarians authorized a study of the history, structure, evolution, objectives and cost of the European Union for use as a model. The study team heads to Europe in March.
The Asian union as de Venecia envisions it would begin with the 10 Asean nations, six of which already cooperate on a free-trade area. De Venecia believes all of Asean could have one parliament in three to 10 years.
The next targets for economic and political integration would be Japan, South Korea and China. “And, down the line, maybe in the next 25 or 30 years we can begin to look at Pakistan, India and Bangladesh,” de Venecia said.
De Venecia has no problem with that long-term timetable. “After all, it took 49 years for Europe to develop [the European Union] from its beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community,” he noted.
Those 49 years haven’t always been smooth; despite the landmark adoption of the euro on
Jan 1, intra-EU politics remain delicate, especially when it comes to cultural and labor issues.
De Venecia said that while Europe’s example will be instructive, it will be even more difficult to form an Asian union for several reasons.
“Europe is a Christian civilization; here we have Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and, if you include India, Hindus. Plus, Europe is a united land mass,” he said.
In addition, de Venecia acknowledged that Asia encompasses a wider variety of political and economic systems—from absolute monarchy in Brunei to communism in China, Laos and Vietnam. But he sees many advantages for such a union if it comes together.
“It would bring us a lot closer to each other politically, economically and culturally,” he said.
“We can trade with each other, export to each other, import from each other, lend each other money. We can make cross-border arrangements and common visa arrangements.”
Most of all, an Asian union might help avert disasters like the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
“If there is a fire in one country, we can quickly respond to it—whether it is a political fire, an economic fire or a real fire,” he said.
De Venecia today will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, to whom he plans to propose the creation of an Asian Monetary Fund. A similar plan was conceived by the Japanese during the 1997 crisis but fizzled, partly because of US and Chinese opposition.
De Venecia thinks the AMF is an idea whose time has come. “I will propose this to Premier Koizumi, and I will propose that it be initially capitalized at $50 billion,” he said.
De Venecia, 65, also serves as national chairman of the Philippines’ ruling party, Lakas. He came in second out of 10 candidates in the 1998 presidential elections, losing to former president Joseph Estrada, who was ousted last year. Current president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was de Venecia’s running mate in 1998 and ascended to the presidency after Estrada left.
De Venecia said he is satisfied with his current position, from which he believes he can make big things happen. “We just have to open our eyes to the larger Asian landscape,” he said.
“The Europeans started with a few visionaries, and before they knew it everyone was on board. It’s going to be like that in Asia.”