JAKARTA (Jan 24) —  The Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) plan to step up cooperation in anti-terrorism during their two-day meeting in Brussels next week with a joint declaration to combat terrorism.

ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said this collaboration is a move forward in promoting security in Southeast Asia and beyond, following the agreement by regional leaders at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia last November to intensify efforts to curb terrorism within member states.

Mr. Ong said the joint declaration by ASEAN and the 15-member EU at the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) in Belgium will signal that the governments of both regions are on top of the situation which poses a threat to peace, stability and security.

“This demonstrates the commitment from both sides of their intention to cooperate substantively as a general preventive measure against terrorism and whenever the specific threat occurs,” said Mr. Ong.

“In combating terrorism, we’re dealing with a great deal of uncertainty and the unknown. We want to see the affirmation by everybody concerned that we will work together to exchange information and we’ll use existing mechanisms to tackle a particular case,” he added.

“What we’re trying to do is to boil down to a few specific measures as embodied in existing frameworks like that spelt out by the United Nations and other international conventions.”

The cooperation will see the strengthening of law enforcement agencies of ASEAN and the EU, as well as through the ASEAN Regional Forum that groups 23 Asia-Pacific countries in a political and security dialogue. Both ASEAN and EU nations will work together to examine the root causes of terrorism and the impact of terrorist activities.

Trade will also be on the agenda as the ministers discuss ways to increase trade flows and economic and technical cooperation.

“The EU as a collective entity is very important to all the ASEAN countries individually because the EU is a major market for all the exports from each ASEAN country,” said Mr. Ong.

“It is also a major provider of technical assistance and other kinds of regional  programmes for ASEAN.”

But Mr. Ong noted that investments from the EU have declined in recent years as European businesses have turned to other regions.

“We’ve seen a shift of investment flows from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, principally to China,” he said.

“ I think a dialogue between the ministers of the EU and ASEAN will foster a more positive climate to encourage more people to look at ASEAN and opportunities here.”

On the possibility of establishing a Free Trade Area agreement between ASEAN and the EU, following the efforts by ASEAN and China to develop an FTA, Mr. Ong said the issue may be discussed at the meeting in Brussels but it is not likely to take shape soon.

“An FTA between ASEAN and EU will of course be a bonus for us, but it might be premature at this point,” said Mr. Ong.

“It’s an ideal that we want to work towards especially since each of us individually have a substantial relationship with the EU, so we will not be anxious in pushing this. But we would like to have more free trade, and if the FTA is the desired mechanism to achieve that, then let’s work on it. But if we cannot work on such a framework, we must reaffirm our respective desires for more trade and investment flows between ASEAN and the EU.”

The Secretary-General said there is much to be gained for both sides to maintain a substantive dialogue and “not allow small details to cloud the bigger strategic picture.”

Let’s take this advantage to produce results and position ourselves for a better relationship in the coming years.”

Mr. Ong said the Brussels meeting is significant at a time when the world is faced with a difficult international situation, with the terrorism threat and slow economic growth. He said the attendance of Myanmar is also a positive move that will foster an atmosphere of greater dialogue between the country and the EU, which has imposed sanctions on Myanmar for its human rights record.

Myanmar, which joined ASEAN in 1997, had been an issue with the EU governments, which slapped a visa ban on Myanmar officials, preventing them from visiting Europe. The previous ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting that had been scheduled in Europe, was instead held in Laos in 2000. This year, the EU has eased pressure on Myanmar, allowing its participation in Belgium.

 “In Brussels, both sides will be giving their views,” said Mr. Ong. “Myanmar will be expressing its considerations and concerns, and so will the EU.

“We mustn’t use old clichés and buzzwords,” he added. “We want to be more focused. There should be a good discussion. We might not agree with everything the other side says, but at least we have a chance to appreciate their concerns and go back with this knowledge and see how we can have a better understanding of each other.”

Mr. Ong said having a dialogue is better than keeping silent.

“We are talking about a major issue between two sides,” he said. “We cannot expect everything to be resolved overnight. But if we make an effort to hear each other out, then hopefully, we’ll have a chance to make some progress and we should be leaving Brussels in a better position than when we first started out.”