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20th EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Brussels

24 July 2014

EU and ASEAN foreign ministers met in Brussels on 23 July for their biannual meeting to review progress in their relationship. The meeting, co-chaired by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, Vietnamese foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, agreed on a number of steps including boosting connectivity between the two regions and enhancing maritime security cooperation.

On connectivity, they agreed to concentrate on physical infrastructure and communication systems using where possible public and private partnerships. There will also be closer cooperation on aviation matters.

On the maritime side cooperation will include port security, counter-piracy, illegal fishing, the sustainable management of maritime resources, information sharing and capacity building.

The EU also announced that it would double its support for the ASEAN secretariat and increase its assistance to help ASEAN achieve its goal of an economic community by the end of 2015. This support will be focused on connectivity, climate change, the environment and disaster management. Overall EU aid to South East Asia, including through bilateral assistance, will increase from €2.2 billion (2007-2013) to close to €3 billion for 2014-2020.

Ministers noted and encouraged progress in many other areas from trade to human rights. On trade, Ministers left open the possibility of resuming negotiations of an EU-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, assuming the realisation of the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015. Trade Commissioner, Karel de Gucht, is expected to hold talks with ASEAN Economic Ministers in August 2014 in Myanmar. Meanwhile the EU is making steady progress negotiating bilateral deals with ASEAN members. 

On human rights, the meeting noted the progress made by the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). Ministers agreed to continue to cooperate in this area including through the exchange of good practices, information, dialogues, seminars and other capacity building initiatives.

The EU’s contribution to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which discusses security issues was welcomed as was the EU’s interest in furthering engagement with the region through all ASEAN-led processes. This was a reference to the EU’s ambition of joining the East Asia Summit. On the sensitive issue of the South China Sea, the EU Ministers ‘shared the serious concerns of ASEAN Ministers over the on-going developments which have increased tensions in the area.’ They called on all parties to work expeditiously towards an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

On the sensitive issue of Thailand, ministers took note of the political situation in Thailand and the regime’s intention to restore democracy ‘within the set timeframe’. They also welcomed the ongoing process of democratic transition in Myanmar and encouraged its leaders to address remaining challenges, ‘including those related to national peace, human rights and reconciliation.’ Surprisingly there was no mention of the conflict in Ukraine although there was a separate resolution on the Malaysian aircraft disaster.

Overall this was a routine meeting with no particular highlights. But arguably that is what is most needed in EU-ASEAN relations, a steady commitment to deepen cooperation across the board. It is worth noting the many visits of ASEAN officials to Brussels including the committee of permanent representatives earlier this year. This committee, modelled on Coreper, needs to be given more authority but the fact that it has been established is in itself progress. There may be other ideas to be learned from the EU experience. In the medium term the budget for the ASEAN secretariat needs to be drastically increased and thought given to taking some decisions by majority vote. Despite the faults of both sides the EU and ASEAN are still the forerunners of integration in Europe and Asia. As such they share many interests in common – and this meeting was a reflection of this reality.