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Event Report - The Future of EU-ASEAN Relations

19 October 2016

On 19 October the EU-Asia Centre held a panel discussion on “The Future of EU-ASEAN Relations”. Opening the event Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, said that it was an auspicious time to organize this event as the EU and ASEAN ministers just held their biannual meeting in Bangkok.

 

Jaya Ratnam, Ambassador of Singapore to the EU, agreed it was a timely event. He noted that next year will mark several key milestones; 40 years of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Partnership; ASEAN 50th anniversary and the EU’s 60th anniversary. The Asia Pacific was entering a period of major geopolitical shifts and ASEAN welcomed the EU’s interest in furthering engagement with the region through all ASEAN-led processes. Engagement with external partners was always a cornerstone of ASEAN’s policy, and an integral component of its Community-building efforts.

As regards the meeting in Bangkok, both sides had in-depth discussions on ASEAN-EU cooperation across a wide range of issues, including economic and trade matters, regional security, climate change, terrorism and development cooperation. There was a general welcome for the EU’s Global Strategy and strengthening EU-ASEAN relations.

Singapore welcomed the prospect of resumed negotiations on an ASEAN-EU FTA. This would allow both sides to reap the full benefits brought about by the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community. Singapore was also looking forward to the ratification of the Singapore-EU FTA as a building block for the AEFTA. Singapore welcomed the decision to start negotiations on a Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA). Direct air linkages will enhance connectivity for businesses, consumers and institutions, which will be mutually beneficial for both regions. In particular, 5th freedom passenger rights beyond both regions will allow ASEAN and EU airlines to tap into additional traffic flows, and increase the economic viability of flights between the EU and ASEAN.

 

Steven Everts, Counsellor for ASEAN, EEAS, spoke of the context of the Bangkok meeting which had seen no major breakthroughs but which had consolidated progress in the relationship. The ministerial offered useful guidance on the future direction of EU-ASEAN relations including negotiations on a new ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018 – 2022). Talks are due to begin next year. The Ministers adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Promoting an ASEAN-EU Global Partnership for shared strategic goals, which reaffirms the commitment by both sides to work towards a Strategic Partnership. There had been a good discussion on global challenges – slow economic growth, the resurgence of protectionism and insular thinking, the threat of terrorism and violent extremism, and the effects of climate change and others. There was no doubt that the region was in a state of flux due to a more assertive China and domestic politics within ASEAN which inevitable affected EU-ASEAN relations. There were also concerns about implementation and compliance with the AEC. Working towards an EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership would mean going beyond the current predominantly bilateral mindset and aiming for greater engagement on key regional and global issues. ASEAN understood the EU’s importance (it was the biggest investor in the region) but there were many other priorities. Nevertheless there was considerable scope for deepening the dialogue and aligning positions on issues of global significance. The successful informal Leaders’ meeting in Milan should be replicated in the future; the HR/VP and ASEAN Foreign Ministers should meet on a regular basis. Ultimately the EU should be in the East Asia summit.

 

Shada Islam, Policy Director of Friends of Europe, said that ASEAN-EU relations have come a long way. One of the mistakes that the EU made initially was to imagine and expect somehow ASEAN will be the mirror image of the EU. But a new tone has emerged in the EU since it became more humbled due to its own crisis and realized that the world is different from county to country. ASEAN was making good progress although more could be done to address human rights issues. It was encouraging to see agreement on starting talks on a CATA which would enhance strategic connectivity between and beyond ASEAN and the EU. Comparing with China, ASEAN already became more attractive to the European business community. As ASEAN grow richer, older, more urban, more business opportunities will be there, as between the peoples and citizens of ASEAN Member States and EU Member States. Although growth is projected to be slower due to Brexit the EU will remain the largest economy in the world, and it should remain ASEAN’s priority. The EU had good feelings towards ASEAN as a fellow member of the regional integration club.

 

In the discussion there were questions about identity, Brexit and its impact on EU-ASEAN relations, the impact of Chinese pressure regarding the South China Sea, and how to calibrate the road map of the proposed strategic partnership.