Fri, 23 Jun 2000

Asia-EU links on the brink of a new era

By Shada Islam

BRUSSELS (DPA): Often-strained relations between the European Union and Asian nations are set to enter a more dynamic phase at a series of meetings in Lisbon next week.

A long-delayed get-together of EU senior officials and their counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be held in the Portuguese capital on June 26.

It will be followed by talks between the EU and 10 Asian countries which are members of the process of Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM) launched in Bangkok in 1996.

On June 28, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres and European Commission President Romano Prodi will meet Indian Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee for a first-ever EU-India summit.

The flurry of EU activity on Asia is a sign of the bloc's growing global reach, say diplomats. As a political player on the world stage, the EU has to forge stronger ties with Asia, they stress.

The talks with ASEAN are crucial in reestablishing a more cooperative dialog between the two regions following long- standing disagreements over policy on military-ruled Myanmar, a major drug exporter with a poor human rights record.

The meeting in Lisbon is expected to pave the way for a ministerial encounter between the EU and ASEAN in Laos this autumn, the first such meeting between the two regions since Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997.

"We are really pleased that our dialog with ASEAN is back on track," said an EU official.

Both sides have effectively decided to side-step their differences over Myanmar in a bid to relaunch the flagging EU- ASEAN relationship.

EU diplomats say that Myanmar will be sending a representative both to the meeting in Lisbon and the Laos ministerial encounter despite the bloc's policy of sanctions against Yangon.

Formally this is because both meetings are being organized as part of a political dialog where the EU and ASEAN interact as regional groupings rather than under the cooperation agreement signed in 1980 which excludes Myanmar.

In reality, the meetings follow an agreement between EU governments in April to adopt a "dual track" approach on Myanmar. This calls for a toughening of sanctions on Yangon, including an extension of the current visa ban to cover up to 200 military personnel.

In return, Britain and the Netherlands have eased their objections to attend a meeting with ASEAN that also includes Myanmar's foreign minister.

The EU is hoping the talks with ASEAN will cover more than just the deteriorating economic and political situation in Myanmar.

"There is a great deal of work to be done in boosting our economic and trade cooperation," said an EU diplomat.

The EU is hoping for rapid implementation of a work program agreed by both sides last year and still to be put into action. Early agreement on customs cooperation and moves to remove red tape which hampers trade flows is also expected.

A separate meeting with officials from ASEM -- which includes China, Japan and South Korea in addition to seven ASEAN countries -- will focus on preparations for the third ASEM summit to be held in Seoul on Oct. 20 and 21.

Diplomats say both sides are anxious that the summit encounter is a success. But there are abiding disagreements between ASEM partners on the inclusion of political and security issues in the dialog.

Europeans are adamant that ASEM partners must discuss political issues, even if they disagree on questions like human rights.

But Asians, led by China, continue to believe the dialog should enhance business, trade and economic links between Europe and Asia.

"We're hoping this opposition will disappear with time," said an EU participant in ASEM.

The EU summit with India is viewed as a breakthrough in contacts between the Union and the South Asian giant.

"It is a recognition that India is a political heavyweight, on a par with China," said an aide to EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten.

Relations between Brussels and Delhi have so far focused on development aid and also been soured periodically by trade tensions, especially in the textiles sector.

The summit, however, is expected to launch a new and ambitious "strategic partnership" between Europe and India, covering science and the information technology sector.