Banyan: And never the twain?

14 October 2014

Source: The Economist (United Kingdom)
Source type: Magazine
Published on: 07 Oct 2010

Posted on: 11 Oct 2010

Asians and Europeans both beat up the European Union for its failures in Asia. Give Brussels a break

IF A club is judged by how fast its membership grows, then ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting, must be counted a runaway success. Its first summit in Bangkok in 1996 was attended by 25 countries. Its eighth in Brussels this week attracted no fewer than 46, as well as representatives of the European Union and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Size, however, is not everything. Many who took part in the Brussels summit lamented its failure to achieve ASEM's founding goal— a "new comprehensive Asia-Europe Partnership". The consensus was also that this is Europe's fault. Both ideas are questionable.

The charge-sheet of alleged European crimes is a familiar one, albeit rewritten with fresh evidence. There is the arrogance of the EU's lecturing Asia over human rights. There is Europe's failure to grasp that it is in terminal decline and must cede to a thrusting Asia some of the space that European countries occupy in the global institutions set up after the second world war. A test-case discussed in Brussels was European over-representation on the board of the IMF. The offer to share two of Europe's eight seats hardly seemed to grasp this nettle.

Third is Europe's inability to speak with one voice, and the ability of national interest groups to hijack policy. At an EU summit in September, the Europeans agreed to help Pakistan after its recent devastating floods by offering preferential tariffs for its textile exports. But this had to be watered down after objections from France, Italy, Poland and Portugal.

The reforms set in train by the EU's Lisbon treaty to bring greater coherence to European foreign policy seem to many Asian eyes to have made things worse. They have also given rise to a related complaint, that the EU is too preoccupied with its own internal workings to notice that it is losing friends and failing to influence people. Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean former diplomat who is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, put this trenchantly in an article in Time in March: "Europe just doesn't get it. It does not get how irrelevant it is becoming to the rest of the world." He blamed "Europe's obsession with restructuring its internal arrangements".

It seems odd, then, that one gesture the EU has made towards getting more involved in Asian affairs has been rebuffed. This is its aspiration to join yet another regional talking-shop, the East Asia Summit. This groups the ten members of ASEAN with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Russia and America are to join next year. The group has the potential to become one of the more important of the plethora of forums filling the calendars of Asia-Pacific leaders.

EU membership was at first held up for technical reasons, because one condition was to sign the "Treaty of Amity and Co-operation" with ASEAN, something open only to countries, not organisations. That obstacle has been removed. But still ASEAN refused to allow any mention in the closing ASEM chairman's statement even of the EU's aspiration to join. The feeling, apparently, is that the EU has not done enough to deserve the honour.

For the EU's critics, its own summit in September was a good example of its failings. Called "to give new momentum to the union's external relations", it was instead overshadowed by a row with France over the expulsion of Roma immigrants. So it combined evidence of both hypocrisy over human rights with the EU's habitual navel-gazing. This belies the summit's conclusions, which aspired to make the EU "an effective global actor, ready to share in the responsibility for global security and to take the lead in the definition of joint responses to common challenges".

"All daydreams, at least for now," says Shada Islam of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank. She agrees with ASEAN that the EU is not ready yet for a seat at the grand-strategy table. But this may not be a fair benchmark by which to measure the state of EU-Asian relations. Trade, its bedrock, is thriving. Between the EU and Asian ASEM members it increased by over 25% in the first half of 2010 compared with the same months in 2009. And China, at least, seems to have decided that Europe and its currency are worth saving, making investments in Spain and in Greece. Stopping in Athens on his way to the ASEM summit, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, promised more support. Yet this may in part be a tactical manoeuvre to deflect criticism from Europe and America over the level of China's currency and, in general, to be nicer to Europe at a time when relations with America and Japan have been rocky.

China's friend-in-need sympathy to the EU's stricken economies seems in sharp contrast to the harangues to which some of its officials and academics were subjecting the EU just a year ago. But in fact both approaches reflect a desire to see a reasonably cohesive EU as well as a viable euro. Asian expressions of frustration with the EU often seem to betray an impatience with the pace of European integration that ignores the difficulty of the process. It is also the sort of interference in other countries' internal affairs they rail against when directed towards Asia.

A meeting too many?

In this context, ASEM, which is often portrayed as a rather desperate measure by Europeans to cling to their vestigial Asian interests, seems more like an Asian drive to engage Europe. It does at least provide a venue for meetings. Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister, for example, attended in the apparent—and realised—hope of bumping into Mr Wen and beginning to patch up relations. There are plenty of other forums in the coming weeks where they could also have met. ASEM has yet to prove its necessity. But to suggest that relations between Europe and Asia are doing all right and do not need an elaborate, artificial multilateral process is heresy. Easier just to bash the EU.

-from The Economist;fsrc=rss