European Union and southeast Asian countries commemorated 45 years of diplomatic ties Wednesday at a summit overshadowed by political distractions in Europe, ranging from the war in Ukraine to a bribery scandal.
EU leaders hosted counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in a nod to Asia’s economic rise. But the meeting took place amid increasing challenges for the 27-nation European bloc and a day before its own final summit of the year.
“We have to make sure that we have a strong position in our relationship with ASEAN,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Brussels. “We are talking about worldwide supply chains. We are talking about growth potential.”
The EU is seeking to expand trade and investment with much of the world, especially emerging economies, after being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the war in Ukraine has added to Europe’s economic headwinds and put the bloc at risk of a recession.
Disrupted Russian energy supplies have affected financial markets and fuelled inflation, driving up the consumer cost of everything from food to heating. Along with seeking out new energy sources abroad and at home, the EU is weighing devoting extra funds to help businesses in Europe cope with high fuel prices and to counter an American subsidy spree.
But the bloc’s struggle to impose a price cap on Russian natural gas and a European Parliament corruption case have distracted attention away from Wednesday’s one-day EU-ASEAN summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew to Qatar to watch France’s semifinal match against Morocco in the World Cup on Wednesday evening, did not attend the event. On the side of the 10-nation ASEAN, Myanmar’s junta leader — Min Aung Hlaing — was absent because the EU refused to invite him.
The other ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The members, which together represent 660 million people, rank among the world’s top 10 economies.
High on the agenda was a push for deeper infrastructure ties between the EU and ASEAN. Europe announced 10 billion euros ($10.6 billion) for ASEAN-region projects under its “Global Gateway” programme, which is something of a European answer to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.”
“In the global world that we are living in today, it is very important that we are connected to like-minded countries,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said.
Both sides also focused on creating more clean energy to fight climate change and on deepening economic relations through greater trade. An EU push more than a decade ago for a free-trade agreement with ASEAN as a whole gave way to targeted deals with individual members.
The EU has negotiated trade pacts with Singapore and Vietnam and is in talks with Indonesia on a similar accord. European free-trade negotiations with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are on hold.
“Trade is a powerful tool for promoting growth and closer ties between our regions,” said Charles Michel, who chairs meetings of EU leaders. “Our trade agreements with Vietnam and Singapore have already boosted our common trade and continue to help drive our recovery.”