ASEAN’s first priority is EU, not Brexit Britain, diplomats say

ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Bangkok last year. [ASEAN]

EXCLUSIVE/ EU and Asian diplomats have poured cold water on the idea that developing economies of the ASEAN bloc are queuing up to do trade deals with a post-EU UK – a major policy plank of the British Brexit ministers.

Liam Fox and David Davis, the two key ministers in London, negotiating international trade and leaving the EU respectively, have both made a big play over looking to Far Eastern markets for future trade deals for Britain once it is freed from the ‘shackles’ of Brussels.

However, diplomats returning from last week’s ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Bangkok – the first since the Brexit vote on June 23 – said the topic was hardly mentioned.

Indeed, in the 19-point ‘Bangkok Declaration’ which came out of the meeting of the 10-member ASEAN bloc and the 28-member EU, the word ‘Brexit’ does not appear.

One EU diplomat, speaking in Brussels last night (19 October), said: “Their [the ASEAN side] priority is to finish with the EU first, bilaterally, and region-to-region, and then later on, when we know more about [the] EU-UK set-up, countries can look at that.”

Relations between the EU and ASEAN, whilst cordial and warm, have not so far resulted in a so-called ‘region-to-region’ EU-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA), despite nine years of negotiations – an ominous precedent for future UK trade deals.

EU and ASEAN to jumpstart trade agreement talks

Southeast Asia and the European Union (EU) agreed yesterday (26 April) to take steps toward resuming stalled talks on a free trade agreement between the two regions.

Instead, Brussels has inked bilateral FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam, whilst negotiations with the bloc as a whole continue.

An EU-Thailand FTA was put on ice following the military junta’s takeover in Bangkok in May 2014.

The ten nations of ASEAN – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – comprise a market of 625m people, and, as a country, would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world.

In a major article in the immediate aftermath of the shock vote to leave the EU, but before he was made Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Davis boasted of the opportunities countries in Asia would now provide.

He wrote: “At home, there is much we can do to make Britain a better place to do business.

“We should be expanding export support arrangements for companies too small to have their own export departments, but who wish to sell into these newly opened up market places: an 0800 number that a small specialist manufacturer in the North of England, say, could call for practical help in Shanghai and Sao Paolo, Cape Town and Calcutta.”

Who’s who in the Brexit government?

Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday announced six members of her cabinet, the nucleus of the ministerial team that will helm the negotiations to take the UK out of the European Union.

In a speech in Manchester last month, Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – said Brexit was “a golden opportunity for the UK to trade with the rest of the world, particularly developing markets”.

That interest does not appear as yet to be reciprocal.

Singapore Ambassador to the EU, Jaya Ratnam told the seminar – organised by the EU-Asia centre – said, “They [the EU/ASEAN ministers at the Bangkok summit] had quite a lot on their plate.

“And I think on FTAs [Free Trade Agreements], right now we’re looking at EU, and the individual countries. Until such time as the UK’s not in the EU, I think then we can look forward to a different arrangement.”

Asked by if Brexit had come up, he replied, “Actually not. Mainly, because this is not the right forum for that kind of discussion to take place.”

Steven Everts, a specialist ASEAN diplomat at the European External Affairs Service, “As to the UK, I think ASEAN countries rightly ask themselves first, we need to understand what the EU-27’s relationship is going to be like to the UK before you can make an intelligent assessment of what their interests will be for a follow-on UK-ASEAN or [for example] a UK-Philippines agreement.

He added, “And I think that’s by the way not just in ASEAN, you hear the same line from other Asian partners.

“Their priority is to finish with the EU first, bilaterally, and region-to-region, and then later on, when we know more about [the] EU-UK set-up, countries can look at that.”

Under Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s ‘Trade for All’ reboot of EU trade policy, all FTAs must contain a recognition of human rights and democratic norms.

With Thailand now under a military junta, Myanmar emerging from one, and the Philippines under a democratically-elected ‘strongman’ leader who boasts of murdering thousands of alleged drug dealers, some observers are wondering if a right-wing Conservative government in London will – further down the line and under immediate pressure to do deals with the rest of the world – pay less attention to human rights in trade deals than the current Commission.

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