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EU-Singapore relations: a cornerstone of the growing EU-ASEAN partnership

By Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (Director) and Loke Hoe Yeong (Associate), EU Centre

flag-pins-singapore-european-union 

A printable version of this commentary is also available online at this link

Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam is visiting the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 9-10 September. During his visit, he will meet with the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs to exchange views on EU-Singapore relations, and will also meet the heads and members of various European Parliament groupings and committees to discuss the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the EU-Singapore Partnership Cooperation Agreement.

This follows a visit to Singapore by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, earlier this year in May-June. She was in Singapore to represent the EU at the Shangri-la Dialogue, a security forum attended by defence leaders around the world. Besides attending the forum, she also met with Mr Shanmugam and oversaw the conclusion of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and Singapore. The document is essentially an agreement that creates a framework for co-operation in areas such as the development of political, trade, social, cultural and security links. It complements the free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore, the negotiations for which were concluded in December 2012.

Mr Shanmugam’s meeting with the Members of the European Parliament today is recognition of the important role that MEPs played in the European integration process and the increased power that the European Parliament has in overseeing international agreements which the EU makes, especially deep and comprehensive ones such as the FTA with Singapore.  The EU-Singapore FTA is the first for the EU in Southeast Asia, and set the benchmark for other FTAs that the EU is negotiating with other Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Vietnam.

Relations between the EU and Singapore naturally revolve around trade as the EU is the largest trading bloc, and trade is Singapore’s lifeline. The EU continues to be Singapore’s second largest trading partner for the fourth year running, ahead of China and the US. This is despite the contraction of several euro zone economies, along with the on-going sovereign debt crises.  Singapore is also host to billions of FDI from European companies and close to 8,000 of them have set up shop in Singapore.

To say that EU-Singapore relations hinge mainly on trade may imply that the EU has no geopolitical interests in faraway Southeast Asia.  Yet of late, the EU has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asia, and expresses its wish for a more comprehensive partnership with ASEAN that will include political and security dialogue and cooperation.

Baroness Ashton’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue and her recent attendance in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings reflect this desire.  Laying out EU’s role in Asia, she spoke at length about the PCA with Singapore, which provides an ambitious framework for cooperation in counter-terrorism, human trafficking, and countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Besides Singapore, the EU has also concluded PCAs with Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Talks are also underway for similar PCAs with Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand. The EU is also setting up an EU-Myanmar Task Force to support Myanmar’s reforms and Baroness Ashton will be in Myanmar again in November this year to inaugurate the launch of this Task Force (her second visit since President Thein Sein embarked on political and economic reforms in 2011).

She also spoke about the EU’s partnership on disaster prevention and response with ASEAN countries. They have thus far provided €52.6 million to help the victims of natural disasters. Currently a regional network of information-sharing and early warning systems for emergency situations is being established with ASEAN. One manifestation of this is the EU’s support for the ASEAN centre for humanitarian response.

Cooperation on civilian and military operations is also on the table. The EU concluded a framework agreement with New Zealand and is looking forward to signing up soon with Australia and South Korea for their participation in EU-led missions.

Nonetheless, one is cognizant that the EU still has much to prove itself in the area of security and foreign policy. This is particularly so in the Asia-Pacific and also Southeast Asia where the US military presence is much more dominant.  The inability of the EU to forge a common position in several foreign and security policy issues such as over the Iraq war in 2003 and most recently over Libya and Syria creates doubts in the minds of the EU’s partners on its CFSP and CSDP.

Whatever the verdict on the EU’s geopolitical capabilities is, or the euro zone’s future for that matter, it is clear that the Singapore government finds it important to strengthen ties with the EU. There is a sense that the EU still has much to offer Singapore and ASEAN, be it trade and investments, Europe’s deep reservoir of knowledge on social policy or the cutting edge technology it produces. This, even as its epitaph has been written many times over in the past four tumultuous years in the euro zone.

See European Parliament website for the draft agenda for the meeting with Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, 9 September 2013.

The foreign Minister’s meeting with the European Parliamentarians can be viewed from the European Parliament website through this link.