The European Union and Southeast Asia will try to chart a course for increased cooperation, but military-ruled Myanmar remains a obstacle to the ultimate aim of a bloc-to-bloc free-trade pact.
Analysts say the Association of South East Asian Nations—Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia—sees better ties with Europe as a way to balance China’s growing might.
It also wants to emulate the success of the 27-nation European Union by establishing a single market by 2015.
The European side is seeking an internal mandate by April to negotiate a free-trade agreement with ASEAN, but the latter’s insistence on including Myanmar remains an obstacle to any pact.
The European Union has maintained sanctions on Myanmar since the country’s military rulers ignored a 1990 election victory for the main pro-democracy party and detained political opponents including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar’s rights record has dogged EU-ASEAN relations ever since and some EU officials pointedly still refer to the country as Burma, rather than the official name adopted by the military.
Discussion on a free-trade pact is expected when EU and ASEAN foreign ministers meet in the German city of Nuremberg on Wednesday and Thursday, but no breakthrough is in the offing.
“The ASEAN countries have been unwilling to negotiate a new agreement without Burma,” an EU official said. “Because of Burma we couldn’t go forward with an ASEAN agreement, even though we support regional integration of ASEAN.”
With little expected from ASEAN beyond the odd statement of concern about Myanmar, the European side is instead aiming to advance ties with bilateral cooperation pacts with Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Even here there are problems. While the agreement with Indonesia could be finalized within a month, some issues remain to be resolved with Singapore and the military takeover in Thailand has imposed a block there.
“There will be no signature ... without a democratically elected government,” another EU official said of Thailand.
EU officials say bilateral pacts offer mutual benefits, but ASEAN needs to show flexibility. “We need the suggestion to come from ASEAN ideally,” the EU official said.
The EU aims for a similar pact with Vietnam, another country where it highlights rights problems, as well as trade frictions. They stress they have a rights dialogue with Hanoi that does not exist with Myanmar.
“The magnitude of the problem in Burma is really on a totally different level,” said the first EU official. “And we haven’t really seen any really positive developments.”
The Europeans plan to stress their commitment to ASEAN in Nuremberg with a joint “vision statement” for closer security, energy, environmental and development ties and by voicing their wish to join its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.
However, as for existing ASEAN member Australia, the latter will be conditional on skirting a clause against interference in the affairs of members, something crucial to the EU rights stance.
Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo said ASEAN looked forward to the EU’s accession, saying it would “elevate the EU-ASEAN relationship to a higher plane.’ (Reuters)