Underlining its intent to upscale relations with the 10-nation ASEAN, The European Union inaugurated its mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta on January 26.
“We try to elevate the relations we have with ASEAN to the strategic level,” Francisco Fontan Pardo, the EU ambassador to ASEAN, told a press conference in the Indonesian capital. “This is very ambitious because we already have a very dense cooperation with ASEAN across a very wide range of sectors from culture to economy, security, humanitarian [issues], you name it. The idea is to try and see if we can bring it [the relationship] up to the highest possible political level,” Mr Pardon said.
ASEAN is the EU’s third-largest trade partner, after the United States and China. EU is ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner, after China. The EU and ASEAN had launched free trade talks in 2007. However, they abandoned it two years later, with EU choosing instead to conduct bilateral talks with individual members.
EU has free trade agreements with Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea. In December 2015, the EU and the Philippines agreed to start free trade talks in 2016. The EU has been looking at Asian markets especially Southeast Asian markets to tap into their potential.
There is a growing chorus by the business communities in both regions to restart the ASEAN-EU FTA talks. “I am in favour of the EU and ASEAN starting negotiations again,” Singapore’s Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang said.
With ASEAN formally establishing an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at its annual summit in November 2015, it is expected to create a single market with few barriers to the flow of trade, capital and professional labour. ASEAN has a population of 625 million people. Mr Lim has asked the ASEAN nations to style themselves on the EU to integrate the AEC. However, he warned against making the same mistakes as the EU. Mr Lim said the EU had gone too far with centralisation, bureaucracy and handing over sovereignty.
“ASEAN has always considered the EU as one of its most important major partners,” ASEAN’s Secretary General Le Luong Minh said at the inauguration. “As we move on to our next phase of the partnership, we look forward to the continuing support from the EU to further strengthen our political cohesion, economic integration and people-to-people-centered community.”
EU has also pledged 170 million euros (($184 million), to support ASEAN integration during 2014-20. This is an increase of 100 million euros compared to 2007-13.
Looking to bolster their strategic partnership, the EU and ASEAN will be looking to enhance their cooperation in diverse areas, including climate change, disaster risk reduction , poverty eradication, and countering terrorism and radicalization.
(Sridhar Ramaswamy contributed inputs for this article)
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