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EU, ASEAN ready to restart free trade talks

The EU and the 10-member bloc of Southeast Asian states are to put a trade pact back on the agenda after a 7-year hiatus. Currently only Singapore and Vietnam have free trade deals with Europe.

Trade ministers of the two regional blocs said in a joint statement on Friday they had asked officials to develop a framework for a future free trade agreement (FTA).

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said talks would restart, but there was no so far no targeted time-frame.

"We believe it is important to connect two growing markets and to take away as many obstacles to trade," she told reporters in Manila.

Philippinen Cecilia Malmström in Manila (Reuters/E. De Castro)

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is in the Philippine capital for trade talks

"Having a region-to-region agreement between the EU and ASEAN is a long-term goal we've been discussing for many years. We are now taking steps towards this."

Protectionism concerns

Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said talks would resume in an attempt to counter uncertainties arising from "growing protectionist and inward-looking policy stances" that often blame trade for the loss of jobs because of automation and industrialization.

His comments were aimed at US President Donald Trump, who has vowed to impose tariffs on imports and bring back American jobs lost to other countries. Trump has also withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with several Asia Pacific rim countries, which included the ASEAN bloc.

The original negotiations between the EU and ASEAN began in 2007 but were suspended two years later due to the difficulties of agreeing a common set of standards among the 10 Southeast Asian countries, which include Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Human rights still an issue

A requirement by Brussels to consider human rights in its trade policies may also have been an issue.

The EU has FTA's with Vietnam and Singapore and is still negotiating agreements with the other larger countries in the region.

The ASEAN area is the world's seventh-largest market, and has a combined 622 million people and economy of 2.45 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion) and is driven largely by consumption, exports and manufacturing, with Europe a key importer of goods.

Two-way trade between the two regions stood at 208 billion euros in 2016. The EU was the largest external source of foreign direct investment into ASEAN in 2015, at 23.3 billion euros.

mm/uhe (AP, Reuters)

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