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The European Union’s decision to appoint a special ambassador accredited to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a welcome and long-awaited step forward in the EU’s relations with one of the world’s most dynamic and rapidly-growing regions.

As a statement by the European External Action Service, the EU’s “foreign ministry”, underlined, the “important decision” reflects Europe’s growing engagement with ASEAN and an ambition to upgrade the existing partnership with the Southeast Asian grouping to a strategic one.

The move also underscores the hard work put in by ASEAN members in drawing EU attention to the region over the last four years. Friends of Europe has been a strong advocate of closer and stronger EU-ASEAN relations.

The new EU envoy could make an important contribution to injecting some much-needed momentum into what – until four years ago – was still a lacklustre and uninspiring relationship.

Good progress has been made in recent years. However, building a solid, sustainable and strategic EU-ASEAN relationship will remain a challenge, demanding a strong effort by both regions. Certainly both sides see an interest in forging closer ties. Bilateral EU-ASEAN trade and investment flows are booming. Europe and ASEAN need each other’s’ markets to grow and thrive.

But in addition to the global challenges they need to tackle, Asian and European countries face difficult tasks both at home and in their respective regions. Still grappling with slowing economic growth and unacceptably-high youth unemployment rates, Europe’s urgent foreign policy priority is to thrash out a new “beyond sanctions” strategy for dealing with an increasingly volatile and assertive Russia.

European countries are also under pressure to join America’s campaign to “destroy and degrade” the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.

ASEAN states, meanwhile, are struggling to meet their goal of forging a border-free single ASEAN market by end-2015. On the foreign policy front, they are engaged in a delicate balancing act to maintain good relations with the three Asian behemoths: China, Japan and India.

Still the omens are good. Coming only a few weeks before the mega Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan on October 16, the EU announcement on the special envoy to ASEAN sends a strong and reassuring message of continuing EU engagement with Asia in the years ahead.

ASEM will bring together 53 Asian (including ASEAN) and European partners for a two day summit focusing on the key security, economic and political challenges facing both regions.

Significantly, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and key ASEAN leaders will be attending the meeting as will Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and the EU’s top officials, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso. For both men it will be the last ASEM gathering before the change of EU leadership in November.

Asian and European business leaders, parliamentarians, academics and journalists as well as civil society actors will also be gathering in Milan around the same time in separate but inter-connected fora.

In another sign that Europe intends to stay engaged with Asian states despite the fires burning in its neighbourhood, the incoming EU foreign policy chief, Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, has gone out of her way in recent weeks to highlight Europe’s sustained interest in Asia, including ASEAN.

Mogherini’s focus on Asia is important and reassuring. Her predecessor Catherine Ashton was roundly criticised by ASEAN governments for paying only sporadic and cursory attention to their region. She managed to get relations back on track – but it was touch and go at moments.

Mogherini is expected to be more attentive. And under the new structures being designed by incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU foreign policy chief will be working in close cooperation with her colleagues who deal with trade, development aid, humanitarian affairs and climate change to forge a coherent conversation with Asia. Closer coordination with EU capitals is also expected.

This is good news. Both the EU and ASEAN have worked hard over the last four years – in Brussels and in the different European and Southeast Asian capitals – to make their relationship more credible and relevant.

It’s often been long and laborious. Human rights issues as well as relations with the former military junta in Myanmar cast a dark, unpleasant shadow over relations even as trade and investment flows continued to expand.

Political reforms in Myanmar as well as ASEAN’s economic dynamism and newfound interest in developing an impressive – albeit still modest – human rights agenda, have helped to turn the relationship around.

Looking ahead, for the EU, membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS) remains an important strategic goal. The 18-member forum which discusses security and development includes ASEAN as well as the United States, Russia, India and others. ASEAN’s reaction so far to EU membership of the East Asia Summit has varied from lukewarm to hostile, however.

The appointment of the new EU envoy to ASEAN could help unlock the EU membership of EAS in the coming years. ASEAN is also looking for an EU upgrade to status of “strategic partner” and the regular convening of EU-ASEAN summits.

At the same time, with the end-2015 deadline approaching for establishing a border-free ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), demands for the revival of the once-abandoned effort to negotiate an EU-ASEAN free trade deal have resurfaced. The outgoing EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has said such a pact could be negotiated once the AEC is in place. It’s still not clear if his successor Cecilia Malmstrom will be equally interested in such a deal.

Certainly an EU-ASEAN FTA could increase Europe’s visibility in a landscape crowded by multiple Asian free trade initiatives including the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) linking ASEAN to all leading economies in the region.

Significantly, the EU has emerged as an important partner in implementing the Master Plan on Connectivity adopted by ASEAN leaders in October. The plan, which includes the forging of physical, institutional and people-to-people links, is discussed in the EU-ASEAN Dialogue on Connectivity. The first such dialogue was held in Brussels earlier this year.
A conversation on maritime security has also been initiated.

These and other EU-ASEAN ventures should expand and deepen once the new – and yet to be named – EU envoy to the grouping begins working in Jakarta. Europe and ASEAN have come a long way in making their partnership more relevant in a rapidly-changing world. Both sides must maintain the momentum despite domestic and regional distractions.

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