EU's Malmström Pushes for Deeper Trade Ties in Asia-Pacific Region

9 March 2017

Boosting economic ties with the Asia-Pacific region is one of the main items on the EU trade docket this week, as the bloc’s top trade official travels to Singapore and the Philippines for talks on advancing various initiatives.

Visiting the city-state on Wednesday 8 March, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström told an audience at Singapore Management University that the EU is “pursuing an ambitious agenda of trade negotiations,” including within the region – and that doing so has become even more imperative in light of inward-focused rhetoric being expressed in many parts of the world.

“Even in some of the richest countries in the world who have long benefited from and championed trade, some blame trade for society’s ills – they hope to push the clock back against the changes they see in the world, thinking the answer is to close borders or to build walls,” she said.

The EU trade chief was also meeting with her Singaporean counterpart, Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang, to discuss the future of the already completed EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, eyeing the next steps for bringing the long-awaited accord into force.

“The early ratification of the [EU-Singapore deal] will demonstrate the EU’s resolve as a key player in the global trading system and send a clear signal about the EU’s commitment to step up its engagement of the region,” said Lim on Singapore’s behalf.

Negotiations for that accord were completed in October 2014; however, the ratification process is awaiting a legal opinion from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to confirm which areas of the deal fall under exclusive EU competence, shared competence, or member state competence.

An advocate general for the EU court has already circulated her final opinion on the subject, with a final opinion from the ECJ due in 2017. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 January 2017)

EU interest in TPP country ties

Speaking to Singapore Management University, Malmström also highlighted the EU’s interest to deepen its engagement with other countries in the region, including those which have signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, among others.

“I know many here will be disappointed by the uncertainty surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. So are we, we were supporting that,” she said.

That development, and the uncertainty regarding the EU’s own planned trade deal with the US, were both cited by the EU trade chief in her speech as a rationale toward fighting for greater trade liberalisation.

“That should not become a pattern, or an omen, for the global trade agenda. That is why we are determined to double down in advancing our own trade talks with partners around the world, including the countries of the TPP,” she said.

Indeed, EU leaders are expected to send a similar message during a summit on Thursday 9 March, with the Reuters news agency reporting that a draft version of their conclusions will promote the bloc’s foreign trade agenda for new and existing negotiations.

The future of the 12-country Pacific Rim pact has been put into question following the move by US President Donald Trump to withdraw Washington from the accord. Officials from the TPP countries are preparing to meet next week in the Chilean coastal town of Viña del Mar for talks on the pact’s next steps.

Of the 12 TPP countries, the EU has already negotiated a trade deal with Canada, which the bloc’s parliament ratified last month. (See Bridges Weekly, 16 February 2017)

Efforts continue to reach an accord with Japan, another TPP country, this year. Singapore is another TPP member, and the EU is working with Australia and New Zealand individually to launch trade talks in the near-term. Regarding discussions with Wellington, the two sides announced this week that they had completed “joint scoping discussions” for what a future deal might cover and are now ready to seek the necessary mandates to begin negotiating.

Meanwhile, TPP signatories have been busy over the past month holding bilateral talks to begin gauging possible options going forward. Along with inviting TPP countries, Chile has also invited non-TPP countries, including China, to the Viña del Mar meeting, and the US is reportedly expected to send an official despite having withdrawn. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 February 2017)

“Right here and now, of course, the key focus of the TPP is to look at whether or not the deal can be salvaged,” said Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo during a 6 March interview with ABC Radio.

ASEAN region-to-region talks revival?

Meanwhile, the EU and the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had originally attempting to negotiate a region-to-region trade deal, kicking off talks in 2007 only to put the effort on hold two years later.

In the years since, the 28-nation bloc has been negotiating trade deals with individual members of the Southeast Asian grouping. Along with reaching the above-mentioned agreement with Singapore, the EU has also clinched a deal with Vietnam in December 2015 that is pending signature and approval.

Individual negotiations are also underway with Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively.
“Our bilateral trade agreements can help promote integration and value chains within the region,” said Malmström this week. She noted that her meetings in Manila, Philippines, on Thursday with ASEAN ministers will also look to examine the prospects of potentially reviving the region-to-region talks, which “would be of immense significance.”

The EU is the Southeast Asian bloc’s second-largest trading partner, while the ASEAN group overall ranks as the European bloc’s third-largest partner, according to statistics published by the European Commission.

ICTSD reporting; “EU leaders set to reject protectionism in contrast to Trump,” REUTERS, 8 March 2017.

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