Suddenly it all happened.
Commenting on the outcome of an EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting today on social media, Gunnar Wiegand, who leads Asian affairs at the European External Action Service said the gathering was “not a routine meeting, but a historic step”.
Strategic partnership and palm oil dialogue
Due to, among others, disagreements over EU palm oil imports and gripes over human rights with some ASEAN members, plans by the EU and the South East Asian trading bloc ASEAN to declare each other ‘strategic partners’ were delayed for eighteen months.
“Today we elevated the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Partnership to a Strategic Partnership,” the two sides announced in a joint statement.
This status mainly foresees regular and deeper engagement at ministerial level – including regular summits.
The EU and ASEAN are now engaging in a broader upgrade of their relationship that includes cooperation on post COVID-19 health issues, connectivity, and cyber – among others.
Trade is a major part of the future cooperation too.
Following many months of difficult informal talks on palm oil – imports of which are set to plummet due to palm oil being excluded as an input for biofuels for transport into the EU – the EU and ASEAN formally set up a working group to tackle the issue.
The palm oil issue was listed at the very beginning of the parties’ joint press statement: “We welcomed the launch of a joint working group between the EU and relevant ASEAN Member States to address the challenge towards reaching Sustainable Development Goals in the vegetable oil sector, especially the importance of a holistic approach to the environment”.
The first palm oil group meeting is pencilled in for January 2021.
Informal ‘scoping discussions’ on a potential region-to-region FTA – a goal set more than a decade ago – have been difficult in getting off the ground.
The EU wants among others public procurement and intellectual property to be included in a framework agreement that could be flanked by bilateral trade agreements. ASEAN is less keen on adopting such sweeping rules at a regional level.
“Cognisant of the strategic value of closer ASEAN-EU trade relations, we committed to further efforts towards creating a practical framework for an ambitious ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement as this would send a strong signal of both regions’ commitment to bring tangible benefits through economic integration and trade liberalisation,” the ministers stated.
“We also looked forward to closer cooperation to reform core functions of the World Trade Organization in order to preserve and strengthen the multilateral, rules-based trading system,” the political leaders stated.
While EU ASEAN talks have generally been sluggish in recent years, why such success now?
“It’s no surprise that the strategic partnership announcement follows close on the heels of last month’s successful conclusion of the 15-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – RCEP – creating the world’s largest free trade bloc,” reckoned Shada Islam, a leading commentator on EU-Asian affairs in Brussels and a visiting professor at the College of Europe.
“The mega deal may be described as ‘China-led’ by Western commentators but most insiders know that ASEAN came up with the idea at a 2011 summit in Bali and that ASEAN officials chaired and navigated the last eight years of tortuous negotiations.”