The European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the leading regional organizations on the planet that enshrine the values of free trade and cross-border cooperation. Both are highly organized, connected, and coordinated, based on a network of bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, dispute resolution mechanisms, and reliable communication channels.
The recently appointed EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell wrote an op-ed in the Jarkata Post outlining the importance of Asia, and a policy focus on South East Asia in his term.
The first region of cooperation between the ASEAN and the EU is undisputedly stitched around economic cooperation. As of 2019, the EU is already the single largest donor to the ASEAN, contributing monetary and non-monetary support in a wide-ranging roster of services. The EU is also the largest Foreign Direct Investor (FDI) in ASEAN, accounting for EUR 337 billion in investments. Total trade volumes for 2018 stood at $237 billion in goods and $85 billion in services.
The second area of cooperation is Environment and Climate Change. Climate change no longer impacts just environmental resources, as economic and social factors are slowly feeling the heat of global warming. The EU-ASEAN cooperation on climate change could be a torch-bearer initiative for other inter-regional agencies to emulate. The EU-ASEAN High-level dialogue on Environmental Protection and Climate Change was held in July 2019, and the continuous dialogue will “provide space for exchanges of best practices and lessons learned, assessing progress towards relevant environmental and climate goals, and designing enabling conditions at regional scale.”
According to the EU-ASEAN Brochure, ASEAN and the EU cooperate in the areas of energy and climate change, the protection of biodiversity and the promotion of good governance. For instance, the Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA) was created as an EU initiative to step up cooperation and dialogue between the EU and the developing countries that are hit earliest and hardest by climate change and have the least capacity to react.
Despite their similarities, there is a measurable gap in several key factors between ASEAN and the EU. Most prominent among those are human rights concerns, corruption and political, social and religious freedoms.
The leading cause of a potential standoff could be the human rights concerns in several ASEAN countries, most of which revolve around labor laws, basic human rights, and protection of ethnic/religious minorities. The most evident rift between the EU and ASEAN members over human rights is the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, which led to several Liberal MEPs calling for the EU to revoke the Sakharov prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, an influential leader in SE Asia.
In addition to Myanmar, the European Parliament’s Fact Sheet on ASEAN highlights all the major concerns with prominent SE Asian nations, most notably Indonesia (concerns of Human rights violations in the palm oil industry), Thailand (2019 Thai General Election manipulation and corruption concerns), Singapore (the non-removal of the Death Penalty), Malaysia (concerns regarding the quashing of public dissent, lack of peaceful expression and public debate) and Vietnam (concerns regarding human rights and freedom of expression).
However, despite this list of concerns, the EU cannot and has not blocked efforts from the ASEAN to improve itself through trade and cooperation. The EU has held several constructive dialogues with individual ASEAN members regarding the concerns, and ASEAN member nations have reciprocated with promises of tangible actions on key EU concerns.
Therefore, the upcoming decade is expected to yield a plethora of opportunities for Brussels to forge an all-weather partnership with ASEAN in all available fields of cooperation. It is expected that the deeper cooperation with the EU will lead the ASEAN to adopt more progressive policies on social rights, free trade, and sustainable development.