European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s visit this week to Australia is good news for Europe’s still largely under-developed relationship with Canberra. If he plays his cards right, the Commission chief could also use his visit to Australia – and New Zealand – to give a much-needed boost to the EU’s lacklustre engagement with other Asia-Pacific nations.

That at least is what Australia and most Asian countries are hoping for. “We’re seeking a broader and deeper engagement with the EU on a bilateral level,” says Brendan Nelson, Australia’s Ambassador to the EU. In addition, Barroso’s visit should lead to greater understanding in Europe of the increasing political and economic importance of the Asia-Pacific and the rapid changes taking place in the region, he underlines.

The message certainly needs to be hammered home – repeatedly – in conversation with senior EU policymakers. While the rise of Asia has not gone unnoticed in European capitals and by Europe’s dynamic business sector – EU-Asia trade and investment flows are booming – the EU’s top officials appear largely indifferent to the growing political and geo-strategic clout of the region.

Certainly, high-level visits to China abound. India gets a look-in occasionally. But Asians are still smarting at the decision by EU High Representative for foreign and security policy, Catherine Ashton, to stay away from the meeting in July of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which is hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and brings together leading regional and global powers.

As an Asia-Pacific nation seeking ever-closer integration and engagement with the region, Australia sees the ARF as an “extremely important” forum for security discussions in Asia, says Ambassador Nelson. “It is in the interest of Australia and the region that the EU engages strongly with the ARF,” he underlines.

In fact, most ASEAN officials make clear that the EU’s hopes of joining the East Asia Summit, which in addition to key Asian players, now includes Russia and the US as members, is largely conditional on its performance in the ARF.

Barroso’s visit to Canberra – the first such trip to the country by a Commission president in thirty years – could help ease some of Asia’s concerns about the direction of EU foreign policy. But this will require that the Commission president uses his many public appearances and speeches to reach out to the wider region.

Significantly, Australia joined the ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) last year, highlighting its Asia-Pacific identity. And for all the focus on the US and Europe, Australia’s growing economic and political links with the Asia-Pacific region guarantee it a buoyant future.

Relations with China are clearly at the core but Australia is also forging stronger ties with India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan, countries which provide an expanding market for Australian exports, mainly of commodities. Integration with rising Asia helps explain the increase in Australian incomes in the last two decades and the country’s still-strong economic performance.

Relations between the EU and Australia have been improving rapidly in recent years, with earlier tensions over agriculture and trade now part of an almost-forgotten past. That “narrow” agenda has now been widened to include plans to sign an EU-Australia Partnership Framework which will make Australia a “tier one” partner for Europe, says Ambassador Nelson.

The agreement, expected to be signed later this year, will allow for regular senior-level contacts between the two sides and closer consultation on foreign policy and international security issues as well as global trade and climate change.

With Baroness Ashton also expected to be in Australia in late October to attend a high-level Commonwealth meeting, the EU should not miss the opportunity to use the new focus on Australia to build bridges with an increasingly EU-sceptical Asia-Pacific.

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