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EU Restructuring Its South-east Asia Relations …

  • July 1st, 2012
  • Posted by EUEditor

eu-berlaymont.jpg bangkok-temple-laura.jpgThe countries of the European Union work together as a bloc, to build a relationship with the South-east Asian region, described in Brussels as “very strong”.

Part of it is covered by direct dealings between the EU and a similar, but different grouping, the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

jessica1.jpgJessica Sier reports that very much of the work is now actually changing over to more direct relations between Europe and individual ASEAN members, which better suits their economic realities.


Major offices of the EU were being set up by 1980, in capitals such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore.

Relationships with Thailand reflect a mutual interest in continuing a healthy trade relationship, and cooperation in higher education development, technology, environmental policies, technical assistance and human rights issues.

eu-flagg-eu.jpgThe EU is negotiating towards a free trade agreement (FTA) with Thailand, like one already completed with Korea, and others in process, with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.


This trend takes over from an attempt during the ten years up to 2009, to clinch a general FTA between the EU and all of ASEAN as a body.

That did not get completed; one problem being that complicated exceptions had to be granted for too many different industries or markets, in individual countries.

The exceptions would be, to government procurement, competition policy and intellectual policy.

A ‘spaghetti bowl’ or ‘noodle bowl’ agreement structure, covering a very broad range, makes frameworks extremely difficult to work within, and so the EU is now looking for ones with the separate countries, that are deeper and more detailed.

That is not to say that implementing an FTA with Thailand will be easy; there is a series of conditions and policies still to be agreed on.


asean-seal.pngASEAN itself is looking to even out its internal differences and get an integration of the South-East Asian economies by 2015; the idea being to create a stronger general economy that can remain competitive on a global stage.

Some of the smaller, and economically weaker members have been hesitant, anxious to defend their approaches to production, development and lifestyles.

They would need to surrender a level of sovereignty in order to unify with their neighbours.

At present, ASEAN has free trade amongst itself, but  externally they do not have a common tariff for dealing with third-parties like Australia, China, the United States, or the EU  — which gets a lot of advantage in trade relations, by having a single border charge called the Common External Tariff. It’s one charge for any product, irrespective of port of entry in Europe.

For ASEAN to get such a common standard is made difficult, because over a long period of time the states within its external borders have not enjoyed a general peace.


Both war and internal political instability have translated into a fragile relationship which may not hold strong when the pressure of global competitiveness is placed on the economy. Countries and the many interests within them may go after their own short-term interests.

The way that ASEAN policy is implemented differs from the EU in that there is a Non-Exclusive Right of Initiative, which essentially means that agreements on any policy, must be unanimous.

This often results in the ‘lowest common denominator’ problem whereby the least ambitious country holds the most power and has the option to block or hold to ransom any idea suggested.

Given there is a large difference in economic power, social stability and development within the ten ASEAN countries, unification can be an extremely ambitious goal.


Their investment partners in particular have a lot of power: China as a rapidly expanding force; the EU with its demands for high governance standards; Australia imposing its own conditions for investment in greatly needed resources; and the United States, amongst other things, holding sway because of its military links to many powers in the region. (The EU by contrast has no armed presence there, to speak of, East of Afghanistan).

eu_asean_thumb.jpgHowever ASEAN and the EU do still share very similar multilateral “DNA” and objectives.

The EU has always been a major donor, investor and commercial partner. Both have the goal to accomplish a single market for the ten Asian countries, and in turn establish free movement and a common visa policy, as well as to narrow the development gap between member states.

The agenda takes in issues such as further economic cooperation between countries, handling climate change, dealing with North Korea as a power in ASEAN’s part of the world, and maritime safety.


The member countries of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar-Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

See also EUAustralia Online
: “Europe links to Asia”, 25.5.10; “EU focus on Asia”, 28.5.09.