ASEAN-EU relations: Moving forward

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Thomas Wiersing (The Philippine Star) - November 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Early this week, I had the pleasure of accompanying our new EU Ambassador to ASEAN, Igor Driesmans, in his discussions with government representatives, legislators, business and think-tanks about the future of ASEAN-EU relations. The meetings have been very productive in the light of the Philippines being the ASEAN’s country coordinator for relations with the EU from 2021 onwards.

At first sight, discussing ASEAN and EU relations does not sound like an exciting topic. But actually both ASEAN and the EU play an important role in the everyday life of citizens, hence, there is an aspiration to upgrade the bilateral relations to a fully-fledged strategic partnership.

Some facts: ASEAN is the EU’s third largest trading partner outside Europe (after the USA and China) with more than €237 billion of trade in goods. The EU is the biggest provider of Foreign Direct Investment in ASEAN and the second largest goods trading partner of ASEAN after China, accounting for around 14 % of ASEAN trade (2018). EU is a major donor to ASEAN with €190 million from 2014 to 2020 plus bilateral envelopes totalling over €2 billion. We are supporting the goal of the ASEAN single market and climate change/green economies. We are both members of the ASEAN Regional Forum and working on improving EU-ASEAN connectivity. 

As regional organisations, ASEAN and the EU share the same DNA and therefore have a common interest to work together for a rules-based international order. But these two regional organisations operate differently.

ASEAN is designed as an intergovernmental organization and applies the principle of unanimity in its decision making procedures. It thus proceeds at a speed comfortable to all 10 ASEAN Member States.

The EU is structured as a supranational organization and on many issues decisions are taken by a qualified majority. Legislation is adopted by the Council – the forum of the Member States – and the Parliament. The EU has a strong executive branch – the European Commission – and the European Court of Justice which exercises jurisdiction. Every day our Member States are prepared to get sued by fellow Member States, the EU institutions and – most importantly – EU citizens in front of the Court which they have created voluntarily! In some areas the EU has an exclusive competence; for instance, it shapes the Union’s trade policy and negotiates free trade agreements as a united bloc, which gives it considerable weight in international affairs.

Both organisations have ambitious goals; they have huge responsibilities for the harmonious development of their own regions and each organization has to find its best way how to operate. This brings me to what Mr F Sionil Jose, the famous national artist, recently wrote: “We can never underestimate the very important lessons that the European Union teaches us; they have transcended their nationalisms to work together to make the union one of the biggest political and economic areas in the world.”

Indeed, it was also a result of the often painful history of the European continent. And the migration crisis and the Brexit saga give us no time to think we live in a paradise.

Despite their different dynamics, history and systems, both ASEAN and the EU provide similar responses to global challenges such as through regionalism and multilateralism.

Both the EU and ASEAN have employed economic integration and community building to foster and further economic growth. The EU has single market.  ASEAN is making headway in its economic integration, eliminating tariff barriers in the flow of goods and harmonizing its rules to make intra ASEAN trade flow more smoothly and efficiently.

Another concrete facet of the relationship is in culture and education. Citizens of ASEAN relate more with Europeans when culture and education are concerned.

For example, since 2014, more than 5,500 students from ASEAN have travelled to Europe on scholarships funded by the EU and its Member States, including the EU’s ERASMUS+ programme and about 3,000 students/academic staff have studied or worked in ASEAN. Under the EU-ASEAN “Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region” some 500 scholarships were provided to ASEAN citizens for an intra-ASEAN mobility programme.  

The EU and ASEAN are de facto strategic partners in many areas – from trade, political, environment to security and defence.

To sum these up – the two are binded because of connectivity. But while connectivity deals with infrastructures, goods, services and rules, its major goal is to connect people to bring about better awareness, understanding and deeper appreciation of each other. Because nothing can ever replace the strength and power starting from a firm handshake, eye-to-eye contacts – to open and sincere interactions:  discussing, listening, and debating constructively and empathetically.

(Mr Thomas Wiersing is Chargé d’Affaires a.i. of the EU Delegation to the Philippines)

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