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EU progress on Asia

March 23, 2012

FINALLY, prepare for some much-needed progress in Europe’s 35-year old relationship with Southeast Asia.

In the coming weeks, top officials from the EU and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will be meeting for the second Asean-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh to explore mutually interesting business and investment opportunities.

A new action plan for Asean-EU relations is being negotiated by both sides with the aim of unveiling it when foreign ministers from both regions meet in Brunei next month. After years of playing hard to get, the EU’s top officials are beginning to take relations with Asean more seriously.

European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht will be attending the business summit while at last count 17 EU foreign ministers or their deputies will be meeting their Asean counterparts in Brunei. EU foreign and security policy chief Catherine Ashton is also expected to participate. The new EU stance on Asean is the result of a combination of factors and pressure from several sources.

For one, the political reform under way in Myanmar has given a new lustre to Asean. The organisation’s decision to allow the once military-ruled country into Asean in 1997 alienated the US and EU as well as other western countries. Now that Myanmar is opening up, however, the race is on to forge stronger relations with both the country and with Asean.

Second, America’s much-publicised warm embrace of the Asia-Pacific region has been a wake-up call to the EU. US officials have been pressing Europe to engage more strongly with Asean instead of focusing all its energy and efforts on China — and to a lesser degree on India. Specifically, Americans have been insisting that the EU become an active participant of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) which is the prime platform for discussions on pan-Asian security issues.

Third, as it struggles to overcome the economic crisis, the EU has come to rely heavily on exports to the Asean market of over 500 million people. Asean’s trade with the EU, in return, is helping to keep the region’s economy on track. The Asean-EU summit is aimed at the promotion of trade and investment flows between the two regions by exploring ways to reduce barriers and minimise constraints in trade and investment.

Many believe that the changes in Myanmar will spur a rethink of the EU’s decision to put plans for an EU-Asean free-trade agreement on hold and to start negotiations on bilateral deals with individual Asean members. Discussions are under way with Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. In other words, just as Myanmar once halted Asean trade liberalisation talks with the EU, so now it could bring the Europeans back. The EU is the largest destination of exports from Asean, with shipments valued at more than $113.8bn in 2011.

To engage more strongly with Asean, however, EU policymakers must combat the impression that Europe is too busy dealing with its internal challenges to play a strong global role. This means top-level EU participation in Asian security fora such as ARF. It means seriously participating in ministerial meetings with Asian countries. It also requires regular high-level conversations on global and regional challenges with India and other South Asian nations.

Apart from trips to China, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been a rare visitor to the rest of Asia. Her decision to stay away from ARF last year, for a second year running, was a serious faux pas. Not surprisingly, Asians have put Europe’s request to join the East Asia Summit — the region’s prime security club — on hold and insist that Europeans must first prove they are ready for a serious conversation with Asia security.

European policymakers are selling Europe short. Asia cannot take Europe seriously unless it does a better job of communicating with the region — and gains a better understanding of what makes increasingly self-confident Asians tick. The name of the game has to be partnership between Rising Asia and Old Europe. But by failing to engage seriously and consistently with Asia, Europeans are propagating a myth of European weakness and irrelevance.

The reality of Europe — the eurozone crisis notwithstanding — is different. Given its experience in turning enemies into friends, voluntarily pooling sovereignty and achieving economic and political integration, the EU has a wealth of experience to share with Asia on future frameworks for global governance.

Asians pressing ahead with their own efforts at regional integration and cross-border cooperation still look at the EU for inspiration. Interestingly, this is still the case although Europe’s practice of lecturing Asean on the subject has irked many Asians. Europe is the biggest source of foreign investments in Asia. Today, the eurozone crisis has made Europe’s frontier-free single market even more of a magnet for Asian investors. A recent survey underlined that 45 per cent of businesses in Asia are either currently doing or looking to make strategic acquisitions in Europe in the next 12 months, compared with just 14 per cent in the Middle East and seven per cent in North America.

Although Asian exporters and businesses may complain about Brussels’ heavy-handed ways, the EU has fostered the development of high-quality rules and standards which help shape global norms in areas such as food and consumer products, cars, chemicals, aircraft emissions. Europe isn’t indifferent and certainly not irrelevant to Asia’s rise. As the US speaks of the Asia-Pacific century and seems to reinforce its presence in Asia, there is a growing recognition that Europe must develop its own blueprint for improved engagement with the region.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.