EU, ASEAN Ministers Agree to Consider Trade Talks Reboot

16 March 2017

The EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are preparing to examine the prospect of re-launching talks for a region-to-region trade accord, nearly eight years after the original plans for such a project were put on hold.

Negotiations between the two regions for a trade deal originally began in 2007 but were halted in 2009, with the EU and some individual ASEAN countries instead pursuing bilateral deals in the years since.

“This is a significant and timely initiative, and it shows that the EU and ASEAN are committed to take the lead together on regional and global trade. The EU remains strongly committed to advancing a positive global trade agenda in which all sides are winners,” said EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in a press statement.

The announcement came following a meeting between ASEAN economic ministers and the EU trade chief on 10 March in Manila, Philippines.

Since the original region-to-region talks were paused, the EU has concluded individual agreements with Singapore in October 2014 and Vietnam in December 2015. The former is awaiting a legal ruling to clarify aspects of the ratification process, while the latter is also pending domestic ratification and other steps. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 October 2014)

The EU is also negotiating agreements with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. The remaining ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

As these efforts have continued, the prospect of renewing the region-to-region talks has been repeatedly raised as a potential long-term objective, with the bilateral deals possibly serving as a stepping stone in this direction. (See Bridges Weekly, 7 May 2015 and 15 October 2015)

Ministers warn against protectionism

Though an official timeline has not yet been announced, the ministers released a joint statement last week directing their senior economic officials to develop “a framework encompassing the parameters” of a possible region-to-region trade accord.  

The statement also highlights the value of boosting trade and investment relations between the two regions, noting that two-way trade between ASEAN and the EU reached €208 billion (US$221.6 billion) in 2016. The European Commission ranks the EU as ASEAN’s second largest trading partner and ASEAN the EU’s third.

The EU trade chief had indicated earlier last week during a visit to Singapore that building deeper ties within the region is a priority for the European bloc, particularly given the broader global context on trade. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 March 2017)

Indeed, the joint statement noted that the prospects for the wider international economy are less sombre than before, but also referred to the risks posed by growing protectionist and isolationist pressures in different parts of the world.

“We do see tendencies of protectionism and anti-globalisation across the world, closing borders and building walls, raising tariffs – that will not be a solution, but will rather reinforce the problems,” Malmström told reporters following the 10 March meeting.

Given this context, the joint statement also cited the continued support from all sides for a strong multilateral trading system and the WTO. 

ICTSD reporting; “Asean, EU agree to resume free-trade negotiations,” BUSINESS MIRROR, 12 March 2017; “Asean and EU look to revive FTA talks,” BANGKOK POST, 10 March 2017; “EU, Asean to revive free trade talks,” BUSINESS INQUIRER, 11 March 2017.

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