EU, ASEAN to push for trade deal despite Myanmar discord

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European and Southeast Asian leaders agreed to step up efforts towards concluding a deal establishing what would be one of the largest free-trade zones in the world, at a bilateral summit in Singapore. But talks were overshadowed by disagreements about how to deal with the military dictatorship in Myanmar following its bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told leaders from the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) he wants to speed up discussions on a free trade deal with the bloc, which is now the EU’s fifth largest trading partner. 

The talks were launched last May (EURACTIV 4/05/07) but progress so far has been limited and negotiators have been unable even to set a detailed timetable. “We need to put a little bit more drive into these negotiations,” said Mandelson, adding that he had “two concerns” – one being the “time it is taking – we need to quicken our pace” and the other being the “level of ambition”. 

Questions have been raised about whether it would be possible for the EU to sign any trade deal with ASEAN at all, due to its fraught relationship with the military government in Myanmar. There had been speculation that the EU could even attempt to block the country from joining in the commercial negotiations. 

But Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong insisted that “while Myanmar is a significant issue, relations between Asean and the EU should not be held hostage by it.” 

Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers approved strengthened sanctions against the country, including restrictions on imports of timber, metals and precious stones, in the hope of cutting the main sources of the military regime’s income “following the brutal repression of peaceful protestors and continuing human rights violations” (EURACTIV 16/10/07). 

However, during the summit in Singapore, leaders from the EU and ASEAN said Myanmar would not be excluded from trade talks. “All 10 will negotiate; not one will be left out of the table,” said Ramon Kabigting, assistant trade secretary for the Philippines. ASEAN members also stressed their opposition to trade sanctions, which they say will only serve to exacerbate poverty in the country. 

Mandelson will be heading to China and India next (28 and 30 November), along with Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, to discuss expanding trade relations and cooperation on international issues such as energy and climate change. 

Mandelson said he would be doing some “hard talking” with China, notably regarding the EU’s “unsustainable” trade deficit with the economic giant, which “is growing at $20 billion a year”. He will also insist that China must do more to improve its legal framework for fighting counterfeiting and piracy. 

The EU trade chief said that stalled talks on freeing up global trade in the context of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round would also be on the agenda of both meetings (see LinksDossier). He said he was “becoming impatient” with countries that were “holding out for every last dollar that they can take off the table for themselves”.

“We need to come together […] It’s no use just looking to the wealthy nations to do all the giving […] Everyone who is able needs to put into this round so that we can get it negotiated,” he said. 

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