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Asia and Europe meet in Milan

Bernd Riegert/rc
October 16, 2014

ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting, has been taking place for the past 18 years, but it has rarely been in the spotlight. Concrete decisions are rare. Ukraine is one of many issues set to be discussed on the sidelines.

ASEM Gipfel Mailand 16.10.2014 Plenum
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

"Milan will be a bridge between Europe and Asia," trumpeted the Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera ahead of the biggest summit meeting that the industrial powerhouse of a city has ever held. The numbers are impressive: 53 government leaders from Asia and Europe are invited. They will be bringing with them some 2,000 delegates to the city. Along with them will be thousands of police and journalists, among others.

Taken as a whole, the ASEM member states - stretching from Western Europe to the Pacific, and including Australia and New Zealand - are home to 60 percent of the world's population. Half of the world's economic output is generated in Europe and Asia.

"For two whole days the world will be looking at us," said Corriere della Sera, perhaps optimistically. Indeed, the Italian organizers of the 10th ASEM summit since the organization was founded in 1996 say that media interest is greater than might otherwise be expected.

One reason could be that the city will be the venue for a rare meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Not that it will take place at the summit itself - rather on the sidelines, at a five-star hotel where Putin will be staying the night.

Gipfeltreffen in Minsk Putin und Poroschenko 26.08.2014
Ukraine is not a member of ASEM, but it didn't stop Poroshenko from arranging to meet Putin on the sidelinesImage: Reuters/Sergei Bondarenko/Kazakh Presidential Office

There, it is expected that the two presidents will discuss a lasting ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russian troops remaining near the border with Ukraine and,gas supply.

Ukraine itself is not a member of ASEM, but Poroshenko will be going along all the same.

Just a debating club?

The Asia-Europe Meeting itself is supposed to be about creating responsible partnerships when it comes to sustainable economic growth and development.

However, the summit chairman - EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy - has himself conceded that the summit is often perceived as little more than a debating club.

But, at a speech in Brussels in September, he added: "Can you really criticize a dialogue process for providing a platform for meetings, for discussions?"

"It is no secret that the many bilateral meetings in the margins of the (actual summit) are very important and I am happy with that."

For David Fouquet, ASEM expert at the European Institute for Asian Studies, the Europeans are seen to have become skeptical about what can be achieved.

"In general, Asians were said to be anxious to use ASEM to make concrete progress on economic and social issues and cooperation," said Fouquet, referring to pre-summit meeting in April. "Europeans to them seemed to prefer to maintain ASEM as a 'talking shop,' a charge frequently leveled at Asians in the past."

Herman Van Rompuy
Van Rompuy concedes that the summit is largely about talking, but says real business is done there, tooImage: DW/B. Riegert

A vehicle for national interests

Many of the larger member states might well see the ASEM summit as a vehicle for forwarding their own national interests through these bilateral meetings. China, for example, is eager to deepen its bilateral relations with the EU. China would, more than anything, like to have a strong partner for discussion in Brussels - someone able to speak and negotiate for the whole of the EU.

The expansion of economic relations between the EU and Asia will be an important part of the talks. So, too, will be the effects of EU sanctions against Russia - which will be discussed at one meeting - and the possibility of a strengthening of between Beijing and Moscow.

Political leaders will sit down on Friday for informal talks behind closed doors, where issues such as the threat to global security by Islamist terror groups, unresolved maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and the outstanding issues around Ukraine.

These talks, in particular, should are intended to be entirely casual - with government leaders able to speak freely. There will be no protocols, no press statements.

Human rights issues are consistently addressed, according to Van Rompuy. However, concrete human rights matters, though, are parceled off for a special seminar. Whether the student protests for more democracy in Hong Kong will be discussed, is questionable.

Laos ASEM Gipfel in Vientiane Gruppenbild
ASEM family photographs need a lot of space - and membership has grown since the last meeting in LaosImage: dapd

Consensus on climate change?

Van Rompuy has said he hopes for some concrete progress on global warming. "We will be striving to forge an interregional consensus to agree on an ambitious roadmap for cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions," he said in the run-up to the summit. Until now, developing nations have resisted ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions.

Croatia and Kazakhstan become the newest members of the Asian-European club in Milan - taking the number to 53. It all began 18 years ago, as an informal meeting involving no more than half of the current number of members.

"If you take enlargement as a measure of success, then ASEM is hugely successful said Van Rompuy.

However, he added: "Not all participants are equally interested in all issues, another reason why the number of subjects treated is ever increasing. Streamlining and giving more focus to meetings is a necessary remedy."