December 13, 2022
JAKARTA – When was the last time that the heads of state and government of the European Union and ASEAN countries met?
The answer to this question is not only instrumental for a frank assessment of the current state of the relations between the two regional blocs. Reflecting about it is also an imperative, a “must” to sketch out the future trajectories of the relationships between ASEAN and the EU.
All in all, despite huge advancements crowned in 2020 by the elevation of the EU as strategic partner of ASEAN, this reckoning still resembles a half empty glass.
Yet the tide is changing and the prospects to advance this relationship are rosy but the EU must go well beyond the considerable efforts they have valiantly put in the last few years.
Let’s not forget, first and foremost, that it was only last year that the EU Mission to ASEAN became a fully-fledged EU delegation.
The last EU-ASEAN meeting was held virtually from Phnom Penh on Nov. 25-26, 2021 and the next one will be held in 2023 in Europe but details will be probably finalized over the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to be held tomorrow (Dec. 14) to mark 45 years of relationships between the two entities.
This summit is going to be the first one where only and exclusively EU and ASEAN leaders of all the respective member states will meet.
As of now there are two formally established mechanisms between the ASEAN and the EU.
The first is what is officially known as the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) 10 +1 that happens every year on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. On the EU side, it is led by the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who is also one of the vice presidents of the European Commission. On the ASEAN side, it is led by the country coordinator of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Partnership, currently the Philippines.
The ASEAN conducts such a format of engagement with many other key partners every year during the ASEAN Summit, a reality that must be taken fully into consideration because there is nothing so intrinsically special in it.
The European side tends to simply refer, confusingly, to this meeting as the annual EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.
It is confusing because the second formal existing mechanism is officially called the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (in ASEAN jargon the AEMM) that convenes all the foreign ministers of the two blocs’ member states every two years. The last meeting of this format happened in Madrid in 2019.
Then there is actually another forum where the EU High Representative sits, the ASEAN Regional Forum that somehow has a higher profile and more valued than ASEM and it is held annually with the last meeting in August 2022.
Just to give a sense of the proportion, the EU and the Africa Union had six official summits so far.
While it is true that Africa, at least its northern shores, is closer to Europe geographically, the often-discussed point that ASEAN is central to the EU future looks a bit empty in perspective.
Moreover, the US had its 10th summit with ASEAN in November on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit that followed a special summit in Washington in May this year.
Overall, United States President Joe Biden met ASEAN leaders in exclusively US-ASEAN formats already three times.
With this background it is hard to understand how the new EU-ASEAN Plan of Action for 2023-2027 that was adopted in the PMC meeting in August and will be officially endorsed in Brussels next week, is not doing anything to change the ASEAN-EU joint “architecture” of formal bilateral mechanisms.
This is odd because though the EU is not the only strategic partner of the ASEAN, it is probably the one with the most diverse and broad and perhaps even ambitious portfolio of bilateral cooperation.
There is no doubt that the EU can do much more to support the ambitious agenda of the ASEAN and the Europeans know this.
In order to change shifts and reach a new level of cooperation, it is indispensable to upgrade the level of political mechanisms between the two parties.
Below are some ideas for an enhanced ASEAN- EU bilateral architecture that could be picked up by the leaders when they gather next week.
First at least we need, even at more informal level, a new, let’s call it, “practice” rather than mechanism that brings together, from the EU side, the president of the EU Council, the president of the EU Commission, the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU while on the other side, the rotating chairman of the ASEAN, the secretary general of ASEAN and the foreign minister of the Country Coordinator of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Partnership.
Second, the EU and ASEAN heads of state/governments should aspire to hold at least a biannual summit outside of the ASEM mechanism.
Third, the AEMM with all the foreign ministers should be held annually. Fourth, the EU should have an official seat at the East Asia Summit.
The fact that for the first time this year first president Charles Michel addressed it is encouraging but it must be formalized.
Moreover, the EU Commission in the persons of its executive vice presidents, currently three plus the high representative/VP, should have periodic thematic meetings with the four deputy secretaries-general of the ASEAN Secretariat.
Lastly it is urgent that the high representative appoints a new representative to the Indo Pacific that can work side by side at a more political level with the current EU ambassador to the ASEAN, Igor Driesmans, that is proving to be very effective and dynamic.
The EU had till September 2022 its first envoy to the larger region and now we need a heavy weight, possibly an ex-prime minister or former foreign minister to continue the work that was started by Gabriele Visentin, now the EU ambassador to Canberra.
On the other side of the equation, what could ASEAN demand? First a massive dose of public funding, much more that what the EU has committed so far especially in the area of climate, health and education.
These should be accompanied by guarantees for the private sector to invest in Southeast Asia.
Then we also need something ambitious and symbolically prestigious.
Another icing on the cake would be a permanent institutional mechanism to the promotion of human rights in ASEAN, something that probably won’t enthuse the ASEAN leaders.
Finally, a special thanks to Dato Lim Jock Hoi of Brunei, the outgoing secretary-general. Leading the ASEAN Secretariat is not easy especially when your hands are tied.
With this also best wishes to Kao Kim Hourn of Cambodia for his taking over from Hoi. Hopefully we will see him often shuttling back and forth between Brussels and Jakarta.
And why not start considering the first ever full-fledged ASEAN representation, rather than the totally ineffective ASEAN Committee in third countries, ATCs. Guess where it could be?
Not in D.C. or in Beijing or in Canberra but in Brussels.