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Where does the EU-ASEAN relationship stand, as the Foreign Ministers meet in Madrid?

2 June 2010

“Partners in Regional Integration” – this is how the EU and ASEAN see themselves, according to the title given to the EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting that took place in Madrid, on 26 May 2010. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, noted that the EU and ASEAN are “the two most advanced regions in regional integration”, and it is very important to develop the cooperation between them.  The meeting had an additional importance, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-EC Cooperation Agreement signed on 7 March 1980 in Kuala Lumpur.

Looking back at the past 30 years, the Ministers duly expressed “satisfaction at the significant development of co-operation and its diversification into new areas”. They also adopted a list of activities for the Plan of Action to implement the Nuremberg Declaration on an ASEAN-EU Enhanced Partnership (2011-2012) and discussed a variety of issues relevant to both regions: from piracy and terrorism to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

However, the meeting passed largely unnoticed by the both the European and Asian media, and this leads one to  question about the true significance and importance of the EU-ASEAN partnership. The fact itself that the dialogue between the two regions is only at ministerial level indicates the relatively low place of ASEAN in the list of the EU’s political priorities.

Of course, economically the ASEAN is an important and attractive partner for the EU. Dr Surin Pitsuwan  said: “In the EU, they are increasingly more aware of the importance of South East Asia as an entry port for the region’s markets.” While the EU is struggling to get over the euro crisis and the economic projections for the future are perhaps rather bleak, ASEAN’s economy is expected to grow from 4.9 to 5.9% in 2010.

The EU is ASEAN’s second largest trade partner, with a total trade volume of over €169.8bn in 2009 which amount to 11.2% of the ASEAN’s total trade.  Conversely, ASEAN is the EU’s 6th largest trading partner, with a 4.7% share of the EU’s total external trade, ahead of Japan and EU candidate countries.   Both regions are highly dependent on open trade and it is no wonder that Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said the EU is hoping for “an open and understanding attitude”, so that both regions “can fight together, decisively, against the temptations of protectionism, to open up markets, to create favourable frameworks for investments and cooperate in efforts to reform the economic and financial institutional framework at a global level”.

However, politically ASEAN is not on the top of the agenda for the EU. This is exemplified by the foreign policy priorities of the EU’s Spanish Presidency, largely dominated by the two geographic areas associated with Spanish traditional national interests: Latin America/Caribbean and the Mediterranean/Maghreb. With Latin America in particular, the Spanish Presidency was determined to bring about a “qualitative leap”. In the Programme of the Presidency, Spain has put the cooperation with Asia as the last one after all other regions of the world (“Looking at Asia” is the exact title of the subchapter, which might invite the reader to see a kind of a distanced engagement…), proposing “to pay special attention” to the cooperation with ASEAN and promising that “the already existing high levels of cooperation (…) will be further promoted”.

The lack of higher level dialogue could be explained by the “Myanmar factor”, since the EU has continuously expressed its concerns about the situation in the country. The EU-ASEAN FTA negotiations were scuttled probably partly because of the problems with Myanmar but mainly also because of the difficulties associated with the wide development gaps within ASEAN.  Hence, the EU is adopting a more pragmatic step-by-step approach by concluding bilateral FTAs with individual ASEAN states, starting with Singapore. Negotiations with Vietnam would likely be next.

With regards to Myanmar, there has also been a rethink in EU’s approach. The EU is still maintaining sanctions and insisting on democracy and human rights, while “opening the door to dialogue”. The experience has showed that “purely and simply isolating” Myanmar had brought “very few results”, according to a Spanish diplomat quoted the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. During the ministerial meeting, the EU also expressed hope to send a mission to Myanmar to discuss the elections scheduled for the end of November 2010, and they appealed to Myanmar to make the elections a “credible, transparent and inclusive process”.

The next EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting will be held in Brunei Darussalam in 2012.

Sources and links to further information:

Official documents

Research papers, policy briefs