1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

EU pushes ahead with building ties in Southeast Asia

March 8, 2023

The European Parliament has been sending delegations to the region as it edges toward an EU-ASEAN parliamentary assembly. But the bloc is fractured over who should lead EU foreign policy.

EU and ASEAN leaders applaud during their first ever summit in Brussels last year
ASEAN leaders traveled to Brussels in December to take part in the first ever EU-ASEAN summitImage: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/picture alliance

The EU has for years been pursuing a long-term strategy of increasing its influence in the key region of Southeast Asia, not just in terms of trade deals, but also political cooperation.

The creation of a parliamentary assembly of lawmakers from the EU and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — in line with a European Parliament resolution from last year — may still be many years off, but a flurry of visits by MEPs to the region appears to be building momentum.

The parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs traveled to Indonesia and Vietnam late last month, while the subcommittee on human rights was in the Philippines. Three further separate delegations are expected to visit the region in April alone. 

Relations between the EU and ASEAN were upgraded to a "strategic partnership" in 2020, and leaders from all parties attended a summit in December. Southeast Asia's importance as a trading partner is only increasing, and the region lies on many geopolitical fault lines.

"The strategic partnership between ASEAN and the EU is not just a matter for our executive branches. Regular exchanges between parliamentarians on both sides are key to keep the relationship from moving to the political backbenches amid diverging regional priorities," David McAllister, a German MEP and chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, told DW. 

Strategic partners

The latest EU-ASEAN plan of action for 2023-2027 spells out that both sides should "encourage linkages" between the European Parliament and the individual parliaments of ASEAN member states, as well as the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), a confederation of lawmakers from those states. This was the first time that parliamentary links had been noted in such an action plan.

Building on this, the European Parliament will dispatch several more delegations to Southeast Asia in the coming months, McAllister noted.

In April, a delegation of the Committee for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection will travel to Singapore, while the Committee on Legal Affairs will be in Malaysia and the Subcommittee for Human Rights will visit Vietnam. One month later, a delegation from the Committee on Transport and Tourism will head to Indonesia.

On top of that, "the European Parliament has decided to send its own officials to work on parliamentary affairs within the EU Delegation to ASEAN, as a way to enhance the parliamentary dimension of the EU-ASEAN strategic partnership," McAllister said. 

Siti Rozaimeriyanty Dato Haji Abdul Rahman, general secretary of the AIPA, says that there is also much optimism among Southeast Asians regarding better parliamentary ties.

"While diplomats predominantly direct a country's foreign policy, members of parliaments play an important role in influencing countries' policy priorities, holding governments accountable and providing a stronger foundation for good governance," she said.

"Parliamentary diplomacy serves to complement diplomatic efforts of the executive to advance national interests on the regional and international level."

Hurdles to overcome

Last June, the European Parliament adopted a plenary resolution that called for "the establishment of an EU-ASEAN parliamentary assembly." The following month, another resolution noted that such a forum is needed to "strengthen the democratic dimension of the partnership."

Rahman says that there is "consensus from all AIPA Members" to boost ties, but that the European proposal was "to create an assembly, which … AIPA Parliament members believe [is] quite a bit of a stretch for the time being."

Vuong Dinh Hue, chairman of Vietnam's National Assembly, reportedly told McAllister last month that he would support the creation of an EU-ASEAN parliamentary assembly.

This all comes amid a wide tug-of-war between the European Commission, the European Council — a body of the leaders of the 27 EU members — and the European Parliament over who should dictate the EU's foreign policy and how much oversight the MEPs should have to scrutinize Commission decisions.

Many parts of Southeast Asia have often been accused of failing to uphold high democratic standards, and the European Parliament has often taken more principled and values-based approaches to relations than the European Commission.

Can ASEAN do more to stop the violence in Myanmar?

It has, for instance, adopted a resolution demanding the expulsion of the Philippines from the EU's GSP+ preferential trade scheme over the alleged human rights violations committed during the brutal "war on drugs" of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

A month after the European Parliament called for the formation of an EU-ASEAN parliamentary assembly, it passed another resolution that noted this forum is needed to "strengthen the democratic dimension of the partnership."

Building democracy

"The European Parliament is founded upon the principles of democracy, the respect for human rights and the rule of law," McAllister said. "In our external engagement, including that with ASEAN member states, we make sure to portray these values."

Improved parliamentary discussions might also allow for more engagement with Southeast Asian lawmakers from the pro-democracy opposition parties, whereas the European Commission is left primarily talking to diplomats or government officials.

"In the EU-ASEAN context, stronger interregional parliamentary cooperation presents diverse opportunities, from facilitating negotiations and overseeing the implementation of trade agreements (and beyond) to allowing for an open and honest discussion on critical issues where such discussion at the executive level is more normative in nature," Rahman said.

She also reckons that greater parliamentary connections could improve areas like women's rights.  As well as the 2021-2025 Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in External Action, ASEAN has launched its new Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework, a policy to improve gender equality across the region.

"The two policy frameworks obviously reflect the same passion and commitment of the EU and ASEAN," she said.

Edited by: Alex Berry