Making a partnership work with EU

Opinion and Editorial - August 08, 2007

Veeramalla Anjaiah, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

This year is a year of anniversaries for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) - the world's most successful regional organizations.

Today, 10-member ASEAN is celebrating its 40th anniversary, with the 27-member EU having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome on March 25 this year.

The EU and ASEAN will also host a commemorative summit in Singapore in November to celebrate 30 years of friendly ties.

The relationship between the two regions, which generally has been characterized by talks but lacking in substance, has modestly evolved during the past three decades. At the same time, ASEAN and the EU have grown in size and strength. However, their current relationship does not reflect the real potential of both groupings.

Though together the groupings are made up of 37 countries sporting a collective population of over a billion people and more than a quarter of the world's gross domestic product (approximately US$14 trillion), the EU and ASEAN today do not have a solid partnership that meets present day challenges.

"We realize that despite almost thirty years of official contacts, Europe-ASEAN relations have so far failed to meet their true potential. We need new momentum," a senior EU diplomat told the YaleGlobe recently.

Heavy outflows of European investments during the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the EU's tough sanctions against military-ruled Myanmar, an infamous member of ASEAN, have further heightened the problem.

Very few EU foreign ministers regularly attend ASEAN-EU ministerial meetings.

ASEAN's critical geopolitical situation, vast natural resources, important sea links, dedication to peace and stability and economic weight certainly make it an essential strategic partner for the EU in Asia.

But why has the EU been reluctant to enhance its relations with ASEAN until recently?

For many years, the EU was too preoccupied with its internal integration process, enlargement policies and creating peace and prosperity in Europe.

Now the EU, with its $13 trillion in GDP, 500 million people, combined strength of two million troops and two permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council, is in a good position to project its soft power.

But it lags behind the U.S. and Japan in Asia, the new strategic hub in international trade and politics, in the areas of trade and investment.

It seems the EU failed to realize Southeast Asia is at the confluence of two Asian lions - China and India - with whom the EU has strategic partnerships. It is this situation that makes ASEAN a key player in the Asia-Pacific region.

Both ASEAN and the EU are now moving on the right track.

Thanks to Indonesia, which proposed revolutionary changes to the structure and working mechanisms of ASEAN during the 2003 Bali Summit, ASEAN leaders agreed to create an ASEAN Community by the year 2020 which would rest on the three pillars of ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Security Community and ASEAN Socio-cultural Community.

After having realized its policy deficiencies toward ASEAN, the EU adopted the Partnership between the EU and Southeast Asia Communication in 2003 to boost bilateral relations.

It also adopted the READI (Regional EU-ASEAN Dialog Instrument) in 2005 and this year both the EU and ASEAN agreed to enhance their existing partnership to meet the needs of the 21st century.

In order to forge stronger trade links and wider economic cooperation, both the groupings agreed in May to start negotiations on a possible comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA). The EU is also preparing to sign several partnership and cooperation agreements (PCAs) with ASEAN member countries.

In 2005, bilateral trade between the groupings was valued at $140 billion and the EU was ASEAN's second largest export market and third largest trading partner (after the U.S. and Japan). ASEAN mainly exports machinery, agricultural products, chemicals, textiles, furniture, shoes and garments to the EU.

The EU also donated approximately $2 billion for Indian Ocean tsunami recovery efforts.

In 2006, in appreciation of the expanding relationship between the groupings, the EU signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, expressing its willingness to help ASEAN.

"The EU is ... very much interested in supporting ASEAN's increasing internal cooperation and integration. We .. stand ready, if asked, to share with you (ASEAN) our experiences from the European integration," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said recently.

However, perhaps the time has come for the EU and ASEAN to move beyond forging such agreements. Rather, they should work toward establishing a strategic partnership, much like the EU's partnership with Latin America, to add more substance to their relationship.



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