On January 21, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore Vivian Balakrishnan co-chaired the joint ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand ) meeting in Brussels for wide-ranging discussions on common challenges and on strengthening the critical EU-ASEAN relationship. 

Foreign ministers  discussed cooperation on regional and international issues, including global challenges such as climate change and strengthening the rule-based multilateral system. They addressed priority areas for 2019 such as enhanced security cooperation, including transnational crime, maritime security, counterterrorism and cybersecurity.

In the press conference after the meeting, Federica Mogherini emphasized the importance of shared values and common interests that bind the two regions in a longstanding partnership as “partners in integration”.

“We agreed to upgrade our relation to a strategic partnership. It is a recognition of the strategic partnership we already have in many fields. We are sending an important signal that the two most advanced and most successful integration processes in the world stand firmly behind multilateralism and a rule-based global order”, said Mrs Mogherini.

In September 2018, the European External Action Service (EEAS) presented a strategic concept on the EU’s position towards growing integration and connectivity in the wider Eurasian space called Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy.

Already in 2016, the Global Strategy of the EU recognised that connectivity requires that the EU steps up its engagement, noting the link between the EU’s security and prosperity and the increasing importance of a ‘connected Asia’. Since then, the economic, political, and security-related implications of connectivity have become more significant than ever before.

For the next budget of the European Union, the European Commission has proposed to increase the European Union’s external action budget to €123 billion for the period 2021-2027. This represents an increase of 30% compared to the previous period.

The EU has been slow to recognise the importance of the rise of Asia and has struggled to make an impact as a political actor in this continent. Nevertheless, the relationship between the EU and Asia is of global significance, and the ties are likely to increase in the coming years. Asia, with about 60% of the world population accounts for 35% of the EU’s exports ( €618 bn ) and 45% of the EU’s imports ( €774 bn ).

For both Europe and Asia, growing global interdependence is an opportunity for better partnership, for peaceful political cooperation, fair and stronger economic relations, comprehensive societal dialogue and collaboration on international and regional security.

With Asia requiring an estimated €1.3 trillion per year for infrastructure investment, there are significant opportunities for EU companies, provided that strong legal frameworks are in place.

One of the most solid partners of the EU in Asia is Indonesia. EU’s relations with Jakarta are developing rapidly, reflecting Indonesia’s status as the third largest democracy with the fourth largest population in the world, a regional giant representing 36% of the ASEAN GDP and 261 million inhabitants. The EU is negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Indonesia with the objective to facilitate and create new market access, boost trade between the EU and Indonesia as well as to expand direct investment. With over 25 billion euro in trade in goods in 2016, the EU is Jakarta’s third largest trading partner.

The EU and Indonesia share similar values, interests and outlook on regional integration, multilateralism, democracy and human rights. Indonesia is also the largest producer of palm oil on the planet. Palm oil is often related to environmental harm. Therefore, environmental organisations have been trying to get palm oil producers to stop deforestation, especially after the fires in 2015 from  burn practices used to clear forests for palm oil planting.

Nevertheless, the country is making efforts to tackle environmental issues.  Last year, the government imposed a moratorium on new palm oil plantations and ordered a full review of the palm oil sector.

“The recent palm oil moratorium is a much-welcomed step,” the EU Ambassador to Indonesia, Vincent Guérend, said in a statement on September 27, “The EU believes current approaches can of course be improved and will maintain an intense dialogue with producing countries in this endeavour,” he added. 

About 40% of the Indonesian workforce is employed in agriculture compared to 4,4% in the EU and, small-scale farmers own 40,6% of palm oil plantations. This makes agriculture including plantation crops for palm oil a key strategic sector providing vital jobs. Palm oil is important to the country for eradicating poverty and achieving also objectives as included in the United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals.

The EU is looking closely at the progress made in addressing the environmental challenges associated with  palm oil. In addition, it is taking in consideration country’s constructive co-operation in useful world projects such as the UNs Environment Programme for the oceans and EUs Circular Economy.

Indonesia committed to ocean sustainability at the UN Ocean Conference which was held in Bali at the end of October 2018. The conference was capped off with many new commitments to ensuring healthy oceans, as well as the expression of a determination to achieve the ocean-related aims of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

With the multilateral system under threat from the Trump presidency, the EU needs to engage more with Asia to secure its policy goals. It is time to further reinforce the relation with Asian countries by putting in place a similar initiative like this of the Barcelona Process. The latest was born out of a vocation to convert the Mediterranean region into a common space for peace, stability, security and prosperity; for promoting political dialogue and boosting economic and financial cooperation, as well as for fostering a social, cultural and human partnership.