Gauri Khandekar is a junior researcher at FRIDE, a Madrid-based European think tank specialised in international relations. The following commentary was sent in exclusivity to EurActiv.
"Three EU summits with key Asian countries – China, India and South Korea – have been postponed in recent months. While in each case the priority is to strengthen everyday working relations, letting slip high-level summits sends a negative political and symbolic signal. It reinforces the perception that the EU struggles to think and act strategically.
Europe’s current financial and political climate should provide more of an incentive for the EU to meet its partners. Restoring confidence among its Asian partners should be one of the EU’s top priorities. These summits would have been an opportunity to show that Europe is still a credible economic force and that decisive measures to rectify its sovereign debt crisis are forthcoming.
Ahead of the G20 Cannes summit in November, these high-level political meetings could have provided a forum to discuss how fellow G20 partners China and India could help Europe overcome the crisis. Asia itself is particularly interested in ensuring that the EU stays afloat as Europe’s woes would affect financial markets worldwide.
While Europe worries about China buying up the ‘old world order’, Chinese investors worry about the lack of structural reform in the EU. A failure of the euro would imply huge losses for Chinese investors. After the cancellation of the EU-China summit, originally set for 25 October, Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao is said to have telephoned EU President Herman Van Rompuy to insist that the EU take urgent measures to address the failing euro and severe market turbulence.
In the case of India, it is the first time that EU and Indian leaders failed to meet since the annual summits started in 2001. The parties will only meet in New Delhi in early February 2012. A summit this year could have provided the necessary political impetus finally to close the deal on a long-delayed free trade agreement. Securing the accord is not only crucial for the relationship itself, but it could also bring much-needed economic relief, growth and jobs to both sides.
Despite the EU and South Korea having secured a free trade deal in October 2010, the EU needs to show more political commitment towards one of its defined strategic partners. Given South Korea’s geostrategic location, it is in the EU’s interest to increase its political visibility in the country. The partners will now officially meet on the sidelines of the Global Nuclear Security summit in Seoul in March 2012. A rumoured meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit would be much more apposite.
The absence of bilateral summits means that leaders do not meet under the rubric of the EU's strategic partnerships. Visits from top Asian leaders to Brussels during the rest of the year remain almost non-existent.
Summits perform a vital function both politically and symbolically. These political meetings are crucial for improving the EU’s visibility in Asia. And for Asia, bilateral high-level meetings between leaders hold high value nominally and strategically. It seeps down to their public as a sign of engagement and friendship.
While the EU might look at trade and investment figures as a measure of a healthy partnership, in the new world order the EU will have to beef up its political presence if it wants to retain influence. The fact that three key summits have been allowed to slip looks short-sighted and is a worrying sign for the EU's future geopolitical presence in rising Asia. "