ASEAN-EU Trade Deal is Still a Distant Dream

ASEAN-EU trade deal remains a distant dream

European Council President Charles Michel, right, speaks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, during the opening ceremony of the EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels, Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Pushing for a free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN and the European Union was high on the agenda at their recent “historic summit” in Brussels, but the old chestnuts ensured little more than backslapping and platitudes prevailed.

As veteran Indian diplomat Gurjit Singh politely pointed out, EU sanctions on Cambodia and Myanmar for human rights abuses would ensure that bilateral trade deals remain the priority and any EU-ASEAN FTA remains a dream.

“For its part, ASEAN is happy that larger groups like the EU are courting it at a time when both its unity and centrality have been called into question.” recently wrote.

The outgoing ASEAN president, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, was interested in expediting an FTA between the two trading blocs “as soon as possible” and argued that “we must not allow political problems to block free trade.”

It was a welcome turnaround after a difficult year that highlighted divisions among the 10 ASEAN nations in forming a consensus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a response to the civil war inside Myanmar and the treatment of maritime claims. and territories of China in the Indo-Pacific.

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Hun Sen, Beijing’s closest ally within ASEAN, made it clear that China’s influence deserves to be great. Five days after the summit, he “highly congratulated China’s unremitting support for maintaining ASEAN’s centrality and unity.”

He also held that “ASEAN’s prestige in all respects on the global stage is inseparable from the commitment of ASEAN’s dialogue partners, especially the PRC,” noting that it was the world’s second-biggest economic superpower.

Cambodia was not the only member to put its political peculiarities on the table. Indonesia, which has assumed the rotating ASEAN presidency for 2023, also seemed out of step. His stance on terrorism was not helped by the early publication of the bali bomberUmar Patek, and a ban on Sex outside of marriage, announced on the eve of the summit, was not what one might imagine when it comes to free trade in the modern world. This was undoubtedly blatant pandering by Islamic extremists as President Joko Widodo begins preparing for an election year in 2024, but given the importance of an EU-ASEAN FTA for industries like tourism, such decisions simply highlight the gulf. of thought between the two trade. blocks

Tourism is an industry that ASEAN countries are desperate to promote and is widely seen as a source of revenue capable of alleviating the financial crisis currently facing large companies if the number of travelers can rise to pre-pandemic levels.

But many ASEAN countries suffer from poor perceptions abroad given the crackdown on dissent, political opponents, journalists and trade unionists, among many others, by some of the authoritarian regimes that make up ASEAN.

Few have little time for concepts like the separation of powers.

In a post-pandemic world, and before venturing into Southeast Asia, tourists should be aware of the risks and think twice before supporting any of these regimes with their hard-earned dollars.

It’s a mindset that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen possibly had in mind when she gave ASEAN a big pat on the back when Europe hosted the first EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels to mark their partnership of 45 years. Noting that the EU had already signed free trade agreements with Vietnam and Singapore, she said “that’s impressive,” adding: “We want to trade more with each other.” We are already each other’s third largest trading partner.”

“So the European Union wants to conclude more such agreements with the ASEAN countries. And our ultimate goal would be to negotiate a region-to-region free trade agreement.”

In other words: No deal, so far.

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