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Event report: Prospects for EU-ASEAN Relations

12 December 2014


Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, opened the panel discussion by saying that 2014 had been a good year for EU-ASEAN relations. But where should the relationship go now? What were the prospects for the ASEAN Economic Community by end of 2015? How should the EU deal with democratic back-sliding in some ASEAN countries?  And how to ensure that the EU continued to give adequate attention to Asia and ASEAN?

Ambassador Dato’ Zainuddin Yahya (Malaysia) said that the EU will continue to be an important partner of ASEAN, especially in trade and investment. The relationship covered both region to region and bilateral relations with member states. One important question was the attitude of the new EU leadership – how interested would they be in Asia? The decision to appoint an EU ambassador to ASEAN was a good sign. As the new chair of ASEAN Malaysia intended to give the relationship a boost by seeking to implement the Brunei Plan of Action.  The EU has provided essential support to ASEAN and it was hoped this would continue in future, e.g. by support for the secretariat.

Helena Konig, Acting Director for SE Asia, DG Trade, said that a region to region FTA would have to wait until the AEC was established and an assessment made on ASEANs ability to engage on a high level of ambition. Trade Commissioner Mamlström was keen to have an early meeting with all ASEAN ministers in Malaysia in 2015 to build on the existing good cooperation in the trade field.. Bilateral agreements, on a high level of ambition, were being pursued with Singapore (completed), Malaysia (re-thinking approach), Thailand (suspended for political reasons) and Vietnam (approaching the end game). There were also preliminary discussions with the Philippines while the EU was waiting to hear the intentions of the new government in Indonesia. There were no discussions on-going with Brunei at present while the remaining three countries (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) benefited from the EU’s ‘Everything But Arms’ initiative. The EU was also assisting ASEAN with its experience in a number of working groups and remained ready to engage more.

Rob Bolivar, DCM, Mission of the Philippines, said that given the progress towards the AEC it had been decided to advance the deadline from 2020 to 2015. Growth in the region was robust: 5.1% in 2013, a likely 4.6% in 2014 and a predicted 5.3% in 2015. Over 80% of the key objectives, e.g. competition policy, SMEs, regulatory behaviour, for the AEC had already been met. The EU was providing valuable assistance on all four pillars of the AEC. For example, its experience on the single market and trade matters, competition policy, IPR (ASEAN using EU patent office as a model), public/private partnerships, SMEs, etc was most valuable. The Philippines wanted to see a stronger ASEAN secretariat of ASEAN, greater emphasis on the rule of law and an ASEAN identity by promoting economic connectivity and a digital community.

Steven Everts, Advisor on ASEAN, EEAS, agreed that 2014 had been a good year for EU-ASEAN relations. Relationships were important in ASEAN and there had been a steady increase in the number and level of EU-ASEAN meetings (July ministerial, Informal Leaders' Meeting in October, etc). The atmospherics had been good and both sides had agreed on priorities for 2015. Connectivity was top of the list followed by trade and investment. There was good progress on cooperation on non-traditional security issues such as border management, maritime security, disaster management and recently the first-ever ARF training in mediation. But both sides still needed to think how to work towards a strategic partnership. Cooperation on global issues such as climate change, Iran and terrorism needed strengthening. It would help if the EU was a member of the East Asia Summit. It was also important for the new EU leadership to remain engaged with Asia/ASEAN but clearly the top priority just now was the ‘burning neighbourhood.’ Nevertheless the EU was increasing its assistance to ASEAN from €70m to €170m. It was up to ASEAN to reflect on whether its own institutions were adequate and done in an appropriate manner given the ambitions ASEAN had.

Michael Montesano, Institute of South East Asia Affairs, Singapore, provided an overview of the politics in SE Asia. He recalled that ASEAN was essentially an elite project, founded on the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. This was in stark contrast to the situation in the EU. But this would have to change as the AEC would now affect citizens in all ASEAN countries. On the domestic landscape there were encouraging developments in the Philippines (political stability and increasing FDI) and Indonesia (Jokowi’s calm and steady approach). The situation was less encouraging in Vietnam (crack down on civil society), Singapore (campaigning already for 2016 election), Malaysia (sedition act, Islamic influence), and Myanmar (unresolved ethnic disputes). The situation in Thailand was most discouraging (military firmly in control but how to transition to democratic rule?).


There was much discussion about the EU’s decision not to schedule FTA negotiation rounds with Thailand. Some ASEAN representatives argued that it should be business as usual. Helena Konig replied that one could not separate trade and politics in the EU. Apart from the political arguments, it made little sense to continue talks with the military when such talks might be dismissed by a future democratically elected government.

In response to a suggestion that the EU was ‘out of the loop’ in Asian trade negotiations Konig didn't agree and pointed out that the EU was involved in high-quality FTAs with ASEAN countries, Korea (signed), Japan (making progress) and China (bilateral investment treaty talks under way). The EU was also pursuing an investment protection agreement with Myanmar.  Economic differences between ASEAN member states meant that it made more sense to pursue the bilateral approach for the present.

One questioner was concerned that the EU was losing influence to the US and China. Another regretted the negative impact of the spaghetti bowl of FTAs on the WTO. The Malaysian ambassador pointed out that the AEC was very different from the EU’s single market and one should not have too high expectations – after all the EU’s single market was not yet complete. He argued that one should keep the goal of a region to region FTA in sight.

Montesano said each country should be allowed to follow its own development model rather than be forced to introduce Western policies. Everts said that if there were positive moves in Thailand then the EU would respond.  The EU was an influential player in Myanmar. It was not too early to reflect on upgrading the EU-ASEAN relationship but the important point was to achieve some concrete outcomes of the existing work programme. 

In conclusion Fraser Cameron said that EU support for ASEAN was part of its DNA. It wanted to see ASEAN succeed and was prepared to put substantial resources into efforts to promote regional integration. It was up to ASEAN itself to reform and increase the resources it provided to the secretariat because the EU experience demonstrated the importance of strong institutions. 2014 had been a good year for EU-ASEAN relations. It would now be important build on this success.