The fruit of Europe-ASEAN relations in 2022

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy leader, gave a favorable assessment of the bloc’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries in his end-of-year “review” for 2021. 

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy leader, gave a favorable assessment of the bloc’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries in his end-of-year “review” for 2021. While Lay Hwee Yeo, director of the European Union Center in Singapore noted that  Southeast Asia is now an important region for the EU as it attempts to increase its influence in global affairs.   

After years of campaigning, the EU was finally recognized as a “strategic partner” of the ASEAN bloc in 2020. 

The EU-ASEAN Comprehensive Air Transport Deal, the world’s first bloc-to-bloc air transport agreement, was signed in 2021, keeping the trend going. Its goal is to improve passenger and cargo connections between Europe and Southeast Asia. 

Last year, the EU was a major donor of Covid-19 vaccinations to Southeast Asia, largely through the worldwide COVAX programme. 

The EU and ASEAN may begin talks on a comprehensive digital pact this year. ASEAN’s ambitious “Digital Masterplan 2025” was launched in January, and the EU has made connectivity, digital governance, and partnership one of its top goals in its Indo-Pacific policy. 

The ASEAN Smart Green Cities initiative and the ASEAN Customs Transit System, both of which the EU funds, are expected to make more progress. 

Brussels is also a major supporter of Southeast Asia’s efforts to combat climate change. Green Team Europe, a forum of member states and the European Investment Bank, announced a €30 million EU grant in November to help enhance EU-ASEAN climate cooperation. 

The implementation of the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative, a €300 billion investment scheme introduced last December, would be of special significance in 2022. 

Southeast Asia was designated as a major region for this investment initiative, which was presented late last year and is considered as a potential response to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

On the trade front, preparations for an EU-ASEAN free trade pact have stalled. However, Singapore and Vietnam have now negotiated bilateral trade agreements with the EU, and talks with other ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, are ongoing. 

Last year, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines expressed their intention to restart trade talks. The resumption of talks is expected to resume in 2022. 

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an ASEAN-led trade arrangement comprising most Asian countries, went into effect on January 1, making it the world’s largest trade agreement. 

However, there will be challenges ahead. The Myanmar situation will continue to be a source of tension in 2022. 

Until now, the EU has officially backed ASEAN in its efforts to mediate the dispute. 

Brussels, on the other hand, is caught in a dilemma. If it continues to back ASEAN’s generally futile efforts, the crisis could go on even longer. If the EU follows through on its threats to apply more penalties or take even tougher action, relations with ASEAN may be jeopardized. 

Other issues, such as the EU’s decision to ban imports of Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil, are likely to persist in 2022. 

Kuala Lumpur took the case to the World Trade Organization last year. The situation of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia, where political liberties have dwindled in recent years, will be another point of debate. 

Cambodia, which has suffered considerable political backsliding since 2017, is the ASEAN bloc’s chair this year. In 2020, the EU partially revoked Cambodia’s trade rights in protest over the country’s deteriorating freedoms. 

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