Finally, there’s hope for some much-needed progress in Europe’s 35-year old relationship with Southeast Asia.

In the coming weeks, top officials from the EU and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be meeting for the second ASEAN-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to explore mutually interesting business and investment opportunities.

An ambitious new action plan for ASEAN-EU relations is being negotiated and is expected to be unveiled when foreign ministers from both regions meet in Brunei in late-April.

Also after years of playing hard to get, the EU’s top officials are beginning to take relations with ASEAN much more seriously.

European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht will be attending the Business Summit in Cambodia. At last count, 17 EU foreign ministers (or their deputies) had signed up to meet their ASEAN counterparts in Brunei on April 27. EU foreign and security policy chief Catherine Ashton is also expected to participate.

Showing up for ASEAN meetings is a good first step in building closer ties with the region. ASEAN policymakers have long complained about European ministers’ failure to turn up at EU-ASEAN gatherings.

However, injecting real oomph into EU-ASEAN ties will require more than clocking up frequent flyer miles, vigorous handshakes and turning up for photo opportunities.

Here are four urgent steps that both sides could take to enhance ties in the short-term.

  • Restart talks on a region-to-region EU-ASEAN free trade agreement.
  • Include a strong commitment to building a strategic relationship as part of the new EU-ASEAN action plan.
  • Celebrate the 35th anniversary of EU-ASEAN ties at a summit.
  • Appoint a special EU envoy responsible solely for relations with ASEAN.

Rapid changes in ASEAN, which turns 45 this year, are prompting the EU to take a fresh look at ties with the region.

Significantly, the political reform under way in Myanmar has given a new luster to ASEAN. Military-ruled Myanmar’s entry into the organization in 1997 alienated the US and the EU as well as many other Western countries. However, now that Myanmar is opening up, the global race is on to forge stronger relations with both the country – and with ASEAN.

Second, America’s much-publicised warm embrace of the Asia Pacific region – which includes plans for a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade liberalization – has been a wake-up call to the EU.

In the last few months, US officials have increased pressure on European governments to engage more strongly with ASEAN instead of focusing all their energy and efforts on China – and to a lesser degree on India.

Specifically, Americans have been insisting that the EU must become an active participant of the ASEAN Regional Forum which is the prime platform for discussions on pan-Asian security issues.

Third, as it struggles to overcome the economic crisis, the EU has come to rely heavily on exports to the ASEAN market of over 500 million people. ASEAN’s trade with the EU, in return, is helping to keep the region’s economy on track.

The point is likely to be highlighted at the ASEAN-EU Business Summit in early April. The meeting, the second of its kind between economic policymakers and business leaders from the two regions, will focus on promoting trade and investment flows by reducing barriers and minimising constraints in trade and investment.

EU27 with ASEAN
ASEAN with the world
% OF THE WORLD (excluding Intra-EU Trade)
Imports 7.5% 7.5% 7.9%
Exports 8.3% 8.9% 9.2%
Imports 5.6% 5.8% 5.5%
Exports 4.6% 4.5% 4.5%

In addition, a revival of negotiations on an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement, suspended in 2009 largely because of discord over Myanmar, would send a positive signal of EU interest and commitment to ASEAN.

The EU is currently negotiating bilateral trade deals with Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam but has always maintained that these are “building blocks” in the search for an ASEAN-wide agreement.

The new EU-ASEAN action plan for future cooperation, set to be released in Brunei at the end of April, represents an important step forward in expanding the content and scope of the two sides’ conversation so far.

Key questions in the new plan include EU support for ASEAN’s efforts to upgrade connectivity across the region, help in implementing the ASEAN economic blueprint as well as cooperation on questions such as maritime security, cyber crime and counter-terrorism.

However, the document could do with the injection of a stronger strategic element to make it more relevant to the changing nature of both Europe and ASEAN. The focus should be on improving the quality of the two sides’ inter-action rather than the quantity and volume of subjects discussed.

Transforming EU-ASEAN relations into a strategic rather than purely trade and economic relationship would have the added advantage of giving a boost to Europe’s long struggle to become a member of the East Asia Summit. In addition to leading Asian nations, the EAS now also includes all of the EU’s current “strategic partners” including the US and Russia.

An EU-ASEAN summit will probably not be easy to organise given leaders’ hectic schedules and conflicting agendas. The Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) set to be held in Laos in early November, however, offers an opportunity for convening a separate EU-ASEAN summit on the sidelines.

The appointment of a special EU envoy for ASEAN would give a fillip to relations. By doing so, the EU would be following in the footsteps of Washington which sent David Lee Carden to Jakarta last year as the first resident US ambassador to ASEAN and Tokyo whose ambassador to ASEAN, Takio Yamada was appointed in 2010. The Australian, Chinese and South Korean “special” envoys for ASEAN operate out of their national capitals.

The upcoming agenda of EU-ASEAN contacts and meetings is an encouraging sign of increased mutual interest. The momentum must be maintained, however, through rapid, visible-and-often-symbolic moves which signal the start of a new era of stronger EU-ASEAN engagement.