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First created :

24 February 2003 0755 hrs (SST) 2355 hrs (GMT)

Last modified :

24 February 2003 0755 hrs (SST) 2355 hrs (GMT)

IT has been often cited by some that the European Union (EU) is a “fair-weather friend” of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) for its heavy disinvestments immediately after the financial crisis of 1997 and its barriers to trade which prevented Asean from gaining a fair share of the EU market when it needed it the most.

Many feel that the EU has a more supportive economic policy towards Latin America and Africa then Asean even though South-east Asia was once colonised by the Europeans.

Relations between Asean and the EU were further complicated in 1997 with the admission of Myanmar resulting in the EU freezing technical assistance and all cooperation with Asean.

It took nearly three-and-a-half years for the relations to normalise and the EU to accept Myanmar at meetings between the two groupings, even though EU has still not extended technical assistance to Myanmar.

Despite this, the relationship survived the strains due to the inherent strengths on which the ties were built — equal partnership, mutual respect, economic interdependence, success of the groupings in maintaining regional peace and stability and forging regionalism, and the historical, educational and cultural linkages.

The 14th Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) in Brussels on Jan 27 and 28 served as a barometer for measuring the maturing relations between the two regions.

The meeting injected a new momentum into the relationship by committing to forge a comprehensive and balanced partnership encompassing economic, political, social and cultural, and development cooperation.

Myanmar was no longer a divisive issue in the relations although it will continue to be discussed at future meetings.

But the fact that Myanmar was invited to attend the meeting in Europe for the first time was an indication of the priority EU has placed in developing the bloc-to-bloc relations.

At the meeting, both sides acknowledged that the national reconciliation process in Myanmar was fragile and that dialogue between all parties should be intensified.

The meeting resulted in the adoption of a declaration on terrorism which is the first security pact between the two sides since the relations were formalised in 1980.

This will see Asean and the EU implementing United Nations and other international conventions on terrorism and transnational crime, and undertaking joint cooperation activities as well as the provision of capacity-building assistance from the EU to needy Asean countries.

Political and security dialogue, which played second fiddle to economic cooperation, was elevated due to the growing recognition of the EU’s role in international affairs and the contribution of Asean to regional security and prosperity through the Asean Regional Forum and other mechanisms inspired by the grouping such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Asia-Europe Meeting and the Asean plus Three Process.

The ARF is also well positioned to play a role in ensuring peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula with rising tensions in North Korea.

Economic cooperation received a boost with the EU’s offer to consider a preferential trading arrangement after the successful completion of the WTO’s Doha Development Agenda, which aims, among others, to better integrate developing countries into the multilateral trading system.

This will be complemented by the implementation of a regional trade action plan for harmonising and improving trade facilitation measures between Asean and the EU.

It is clear that the EU views Asean as a launching pad for its trade with Asia and beyond.

The EU does not want to be left behind while Asean pursues free trade arrangements with the US, China, India and economic partnerships with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea.

In a decade, Asean could have a web of free trade areas placing it in the centre of a network of trade arrangements linking Asia and the Pacific.

Plans for improving investment flows between Asean and the EU will also be taken up with the help of the private sector.

Greater investment promotion and facilitation activities, and networking among businesses would be encouraged.

Besides EU investments into Asean, the new member states of the EU, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are expected to benefit from Asean investments, especially from Singapore and Malaysia.

Development assistance to Asean is set to increase further despite the fact that the EU’s enlargement next year would take up most of its resources since many of the new member states are developing countries.

The development assistance the EU has offered to Asean, which amounts to some US$70 million ($122 million), makes up more than 50 per cent of assistance provided by all of Asean’s dialogue partners combined.

Asean-EU relations will continue to blow hot and cold influenced by the issues of the day.

However, its strong fundamentals will provide the stability that would permeate the relations and keep it on an even keel.

The fresh dynamism injected at the Brussels meeting will add new momentum in moving the relations and cooperation at a faster pace as both blocs strive for an all-weather partnership that is comprehensive, balanced, practical and mutually beneficial.

*The writer is a Singaporean and the Assistant Director for External Relations in the Asean Secretariat. The views expressed here are his own.