Thu, 10 Mar 2005

The EU way

With little fanfare, Indonesia today hosts the 15th regular meeting of foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The EU's standing compared to high-profile, and often controversial, ASEAN affairs related to the United States, Japan or China, remains just slightly out of the spotlight.

That is not to say that the ASEAN-EU relationship is of secondary importance. On the contrary, what it lacks in terms of the limelight, is made up for by its credible substance and consistent stances that it maintains with southeast Asian countries.

As an entity that has neither a physical boundary with southeast Asia nor a portentous military presence, the EU has placed itself as a strategic partner, which is perceived with little suspicion.

One can truly say that the EU is a dialog partner with political ambitions that are rarely suspect.

That is not to say that the EU does not express discontent about developments within ASEAN states when there is a problem or controversy. The EU has remained consistent in expressing apprehension about developments that it believes impinge upon democratic progress. However, they have generally avoided the kind of megaphone diplomacy and open chastising, which characterize the behavior of certain ASEAN dialog partners.

The EU's firm yet discreet lobbying -- talking rather than shouting -- is a welcome approach, which helps diplomats focus on the important substance at hand rather than allowing the debate to be side-tracked by an insensitive delivery.

We welcome the EU's security focus in tackling the roots of regional instability and terrorist threats -- poverty, economic disparity, lack of education, weak democracy and human rights abuses -- instead of judging a country based solely on the number of arrests and convictions of terrorists it has made.

ASEAN itself should welcome criticism, reflect on it, and possibly, make corrections. This is a new era for ASEAN. One that is more honest and forthcoming about the wrongs that persist within the region.

ASEAN members must respect each other's sovereignty and right to resolve domestic issues. But mutual respect is not a license to ignore incidents of blatant suppression that brings suffering to people.

Aside from the conventions of diplomacy, Europe's presence in this region is undeniable. Companies that come from EU countries are the biggest investors in ASEAN, and the EU is the third largest trading partner.

Even more encouraging is the people-to-people relationship between nations in the two regions, which has developed earnestly beyond just diplomatic circles.

There is much to learn from the EU. The historical, political and social circumstances differ from southeast Asia, nevertheless this European community of nations is the best example of what an ASEAN community may eventually look like. Their experience provides ASEAN with an outline of the challenges, pitfalls and opportunities that lie ahead.

Despite the long history of cooperation, there is still much unfulfilled potential in the ASEAN-EU relationship. It is hoped that the meeting in Jakarta will provide further impetus in realizing that potential.