Briding the Eu and ASEAN 40 years of cooperation and prosperity


Ioana Maria HOTEA (Isopescu)

University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters, European Studies, CPCEI Master Program, 1st year

UNESCO Chair of Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Exchanges, Intercultural Management Master, 1st year


The essay analyzes the relations between the two world’s leading regional organizations, EU and ASEAN, in the general context of the 2017 triple anniversary of 60 years since the foundation of the European Economic Community, 50 years since the foundation of ASEAN and 40 Years of ASEAN and EU relations. The paper will address the evolution of ASEAN-EU cooperation taking into consideration political, economic and socio-cultural aspects, with a final emphasis on the present day developments implied by a people-to-people necessary connectivity.

Keywords:EU, ASEAN, Dialogue Relations, Interregionalism, Citizen Exchange

1. Introduction

EU and ASEAN are two of the world’s leading regional organizations.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the most successful inter-governmental organization in the developing world and the European Union is the most successful regional grouping in the Western world. This year – 2017 – is an important momentum for both, as they celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN and the 40th Anniversary of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations.

This essay will address the ASEAN-EU relationship during these four decades, with an emphasis on the more recent developments that aim at bringing collaboration between the two organizations to a higher level. The first part of the paper will consist of a brief analysis of the history, the framework and the present day developments of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations, separating the time frame into two periods, the cold war decades, 1970s and 1980s, and the post-cold war and contemporary decades. The essay will further address the present developments of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations that aim to a more strategic regional cooperation in political areas, economy, but also socio-cultural and people to people cooperation. The last section of the paper will discuss specific aspects that are encompassed in the socio-cultural collaboration, like tourism, higher education and student exchange programs, as components for a better interregional cooperation and bridging of EU and ASEAN.

It is worthy to mention that the coming up of ASEAN on the architectural map of regional organization in Southeast Asia was highly and friendly received by Romania, who was one from the very few countries to officially declare from the outset that ASEAN is a genuine economic regional organization as per ASEAN Charter. Many other countries initially viewed ASEAN as a substitute to a military bloc of that time called Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Nowadays, Romania as an EU member country follows and supports the ever robust bridging between EU and ASEAN.

2. The favorable ingredients of the ASEAN-EU Cooperation

With 620 million people in ASEAN, and 510 million people in EU, the two organizations represent the third and the fourth largest entities in the world by population (2015). Regarding GDP, ASEAN and EU are the seventh and the first entities in the world, with USD 2.6 and 18.5 trillion (2014) respectively (Filippini 2016). The two organizations are profoundly distinct in terms of ethnical groups, languages, religion, values. In the same time ASEAN and EU represent distinct regional constructions, with different histories, purposes or capacities, that embody fundamentally distinct and unique cultures. Despite particularities and asymmetries, EU and ASEAN have managed to design a four decade long inter-regional cooperation that stands today as a model for interregional dialogue relations, having surpassed political turbulences, economic crisis, international turmoil, soft power confrontations or cultural differences. ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations represent an ongoing evidence of the capability of cooperation, competency, negotiation, diplomacy and mutual respect.

Dating back to the early 1970s, ASEAN-EU relations have constantly evolved into an advanced interregional forty years old relationship, characterized by a multifaceted character, reflected in a wide range of areas that can be grouped in three main categories: Political-Security, Economic-Trade and Socio-Cultural, that aim “to promote sustainable peace, security and prosperity through regional integration”[1]. The Agreement that emerged between the European Community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was the first interregional cooperation agreement between Western Europe as a whole and a regional body, constituted by the Southeast Asian countries that established themselves in a regional association only a few years earlier (ASEAN 1967)[2].

ASEAN-EU relationship can be defined as a bilateral interregionalism comprised of group-to-group dialogues centered around cooperation in specific policy fields (trade, investments, environment, crime prevention, narcotics trafficking etc.). In analyzing ASEAN-EU relations a distinction is usually done between the period prior to the end of the Cold War (1972-1990) and the actual multipolar era (1990-prezent).

2.1 ASEAN-EC Relations During 1972-1990

The developing of ASEAN-EC relations in the early 1970s was primarily centered around economic aspects, securing better market access for the ASEAN powerful emerging economies, agricultural commodities, attracting investment, technology transfers and development aid. ASEAN-EC dialogue relations were formalized in 1977, when an official cooperation between the two was agreed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting. This relation was institutionalized with the signing of the ASEAN-EC Cooperation Agreement in Kuala Lumpur on 7 March 1980[3]. The treaty laid the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect, nondiscrimination, facilitation and diversification of trade, reduction of trade barriers, technological and development cooperation[4]. The first decade of ASEAN-EC relations saw an almost ten-fold increase of trade between the two, ASEAN capturing 42% of the EC’s trade with developing countries and being the main beneficiary of the European GSP. The period was characterized by an accelerated influx of European investments in Southeast Asia that temporarily exceeded American and Japanese investments, and it contributed to changing the composition of the ASEAN trade[5]. All ASEAN member states benefited of dynamic export-oriented industrialization and sustained a favorable business climate that produced high economic growth throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Rüland 2001).

A dense network of institutions, specialized in institutionalized dialogue and diplomatic affairs, has evolved through ASEAN-EC cooperation: ambassadorial committees and delegations were established in various ASEAN and European capitals, ministerial meetings (foreign affairs, economy) were established and held regularly between the two. Cooperation between ASEAN and EC included the parliamentary level, as dialogues between the European Parliament and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentarian Organization are taking place regularly since 1975 (Rüland 2001). And important aspect was the evolution of ASEAN-EC political dialogue in the 1980s, when the organizations acted as agenda setters in the case of the Indochinese refugees and with regard to the conflicts in Cambodia and Afghanistan.

In a concluding summary for these two decades analyzed, ASEAN-EC relationship is characterized by constant institutional development, an intensified economic cooperation and political dialogue, all indicating the establishment of many channels of communication and successful advancement in bridging the two organizations.

2.2 ASEAN and the EU after 1990

            The end of the Cold War, with the collapse of socialism and bipolarity, meant the transformation of the ASEAN-EC relations. The 1990s were turbulent and adjusting years to the new, multipolar world, for both ASEAN countries and post-Maastricht EU. The ASEAN-EU interregional relations were at times characterized by clashing soft power struggles, economic fears regarding the European Single Market and shifts in the economic spectra of both organizations. ASEAN, for sure, became one of the world’s few developmental success stories. The Asian-Pacific region witnessed an unprecedented economic growth (an emerging Pacific century), followed by regional development and cooperation, exemplified by the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989 on Japanese and Australian initiative.

            ASEAN-EU relations were characterized by pragmatism, concentrating on areas of common (economic) interest. In the later part of the 1990s ASEAN-EU cooperation was marked by certain differences of opinion regarding common policies or projects, developments determined by the international political evolutions, the changing power relations, and by the 1997 Asian financial crisis that seriously affected ASEAN countries. The dialogue was back on track beginning with the 2000s and the ministerial meeting in Vientiane, Laos (December 2000). EU had become a federator example for ASEAN (and not only), fostering regional integration, closer relations between Europe and Asia and environmental improvements. The institutional evolution of EU towards an ever closer union marked a distinction in terms of regional integration and national sovereignty between the two organizations. Both EU and ASEAN are intergovernmental organizations, however the European Union is also a supranational identity, while the ASEAN way is based on informality, consensus and avoidance of binding regulation frameworks. The fundamental norm of ASEAN practice is the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states. As a result, the inter-regional cooperation between the two entities, especially political and institutional cooperation, takes into consideration the different natures of regional identities revolving around inter-governmentalism and supranationalism (Camroux 2008).

The ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations have evolved in a densely institutionalized collaboration, with a multitude of meetings and working groups. The relations are now guided by the Nuremberg Declaration[6] (2007), which represents an enhanced partnership between the two that sets out a common long-term vision and commitment. The political and security cooperation is well implemented through mechanisms like the ASEAN-EU Ministerial or Senior Officials Meetings. The Ministerial Meeting held in 2012 adopted the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action to Strengthen the ASEAN-EU Enhanced Partnership (2013-2017), that aims to a more strategic regional cooperation. Starting with 2012 when EU acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, EU and ASEAN are linked in a political and security cooperation. With the institutional evolution of ASEAN and the adoption of ASEAN Charter in 2008, the two associations initiated formal diplomatic relations in March 2009, followed shortly by individual EU countries, including Romania. On 8 August 2015, on ASEAN Day, the EU established a Diplomatic Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta and appointed an EU Ambassador to ASEAN[7]. The ASSEAN-EU Ministerial meeting held in 2016 Bangkok adopted new documents in support to an ASEAN-EU Global Partnership and strengthening of the Enhanced Partnership.

The economic dimension of the ASEAN-EU relations is characterized by continuous development and strengthening. In 2003 when a new partnership between ASEAN-EU was signed[8], ASEAN and EU were reciprocally their third largest trading partners, now EU being ASEAN's second largest trade partner. In the field of Foreign Direct Investments EU remains the largest source of investment in ASEAN, with 21.3% of ASEAN’s total FDI and a total EU FDI in ASEAN accounted at US$ 20.1 billion in 2015[9]. During the last decade EU imports from ASEAN grew by more than 40 % and EU exports to ASEAN rose by more than 80 %. The institutional mechanisms that facilitates interregional economic cooperation are composed of EU-ASEAN Ministerial Dialogues on trade and investment aspects, Joint Seminars on economic issues and the EU-ASEAN Business Summit. The positive evolutions in the ASEAN-EU economic collaboration provided the background for the negotiations for an EU-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. Signing of a FTA treaty was considered a step forward for the ASEAN-EU relations. The success of such an endeavor depended primarily on the degree of economic complementarity between the two regions, an aspect analyzed and proven positive (Andreosso-O'Callaghan & Nicolas 2007). Negotiations were launched in 2007 but halted in 2009 by common agreement from both EU and ASEAN, in order to give way for bilateral negotiations conceived as building blocks towards a future region-to-region agreement[10], that remains the ultimate goal. The 2016 AEM-EU Meeting of Economic Ministers reaffirmed the commitment to working towards a future ASEAN-EU FTA.

An important aspect of the ASEAN-EU relations is represented by the socio-cultural cooperation, institutionalized by the Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (READI, 2011-2015)[11] – an EU initiative in support for ASEAN regional integration in non-trade-related areas that has proven to be very successful. Following the Joint Cooperation Committee of 2014, the future period will focus on connectivity (sustainable and inclusive economic integration and trade), comprehensive dialogue, climate change and disaster management. Cooperation will include the areas of higher education, migration and border management, statistical capacity, air transport integration, protection of intellectual property.[12]

Summarizing, the bridging of ASEAN and EU evolved in a close cooperation institutionalized by a framework of treaties and agreements on social, economic, trade and political levels, adapting and changing, together with the evolving status of the organizations themselves, into a long-standing partnership.

3. Bridging ASEAN and EU through people-to-people connectivity. Citizen Exchange, Tourism and Travel, Learning

            People-to-people actions sometimes have the power to promote interregional collaboration, especially through projects concerning education, culture and tourism.  Mobility is an effective method for harmonization, and this affirmation is valid in a wide range of activities, like higher education, tourism, scientific and technological cooperation, the labor market in general etc. This is true especially when taking into consideration that EU and ASEAN share the same goals for their citizens, peace, stability and prosperity.

            People travel in huge numbers between EU and ASEAN. People-to-people interregional connectivity involves business, cultural, academic and tourist trips. The movement of business persons, skilled labor and professionals, students and scholars (citizen exchange), represents a key element for achieving integration. The EU is a pioneer in promoting the free movement of people and enhancing overall citizen mobility and connectivity. EU and ASEAN extended their long-time collaboration in 2013 by including aspects related to migration, border management or the rights of migrants. Supporting the socio-cultural aspects of the collaboration, ASEAN-EU relations comprised policies promoting greater student mobility inside ASEAN or as an interregional EU-ASEAN student exchange, an opportunity for young people to travel and become accustomed to different cultures. Also, endorsing student mobility will contribute to the harmonization and internationalization of higher education institutions inside ASEAN and EU (Jurle & Lavenex, 2016). A growing number of students and scholars receive scholarships and fellowships to study and research between EU and ASEAN. SHARE represents an exchange program provided by EU Erasmus and offers mobility opportunities for Asian students and teachers, notably in higher education. More than 4000 ASEAN students travel every year to Europe in order to study[13]. In June 2017 in Manilla took place the First ASEAN Student Mobility Forum, held with the support of the EU, attended by students and alumni who discussed the impact mobility has on individuals’ studies, employability, careers, and societies as a whole. The Forum also celebrated the anniversaries of 50 years of ASEAN, 40 years of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations and 30 years of Erasmus+[14]. Also this year was jointly organized another informal people-to-people connectivity event, the EU-ASEAN Run in Jakarta, held to celebrate the triple anniversary of EU, ASEAN and EU-ASEAN relations.

            Tourism is another important component in ASEAN-EU relations regarding connectivity and regional cooperation. Promoting tourism between EU and ASEAN is a major aspect in the dialogue relations and an important way in bridging the peoples of the two regions. Over 9.5 million tourists from the EU visited ASEAN in 2015. ASEAN represents the fifth most visited region in the world. European models like visa-free travel and Open Skies are being taken into consideration by ASEAN countries in ambitious projects for travel and tourism development[15].                      

Dialogue and collaboration between EU and ASEAN can be enhanced by securing bridges between people, at citizen level as well as political and institutional level. Professional, educational, business people-to-people links, tourism, student exchanges and NGO activity that supports dialogue and partnership between the two should be encouraged in order to promote a more enhanced collaboration on all levels of the two regions.


4. Conclusions

            ASEAN and EU remain two of the world’s leading regional organizations. The 40th Anniversary of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations represents a proof for an enduring commitment and pledge to regional cooperation that promotes peace, security, stability and prosperity in both regions. The evolving nature of the ASEAN-EU relations, determined by the evolving nature of the organizations themselves, provides much space for innovation. The new EU-ASEAN Plan of Action (2018-2022), which is expected to be adopted in August 2017, aims to bring cooperation between the two organizations to a higher level, bridging EU and ASEAN in an enhanced and prosperous interregional collaboration that assures tangible benefits for the people in both regions, prosperity and sustainable development.



1. Andreosso-O'Callaghan, B., & Nicolas, F. (2007). Are the Economies of ASEAN and the EU Complementary? ASEAN Economic Bulletin, 24(2), 205-224;

2. Blizkovsky, P. (2013). Economic Governance: What Can the EU and ASEAN Learn from Each Other After the Economic Crises? Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, 30(1), 1-18

3. Camroux, D. (2008). The European Union and ASEAN: Two to Tango? Notre Europe, published online on ResearchGate, see:;

4. Doige, M. (2004). Inter-regionalism and Regional Actors: The EU-ASEAN Example, in Stokhof, W. et al. (ed) The Eurasian Space: Far More Than Two Continents, ISEAS Publications, Singapore, 39-57;

5. Filippini, C. (2016). The future of the EU-