Jakarta. The European Union Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Fransisco Fontan, said on Tuesday (12/09) that ties between the two regional blocs can be further strengthened through cooperation in fighting transnational crimes and on defense and security issues.
"We have serious challenges and threats in the horizon, for both EU and Asean as regions [...] – those threats are common and interlinked. So we have interest to step up our level of cooperation when it comes to transnational fight against transnational crimes [as well as] on defense and security issues," Fontan told reporters on the sidelines of the EU-Asean 40th Anniversary Concert in Jakarta.
He added that with fast development in the EU in the aforementioned areas, the union would want to develop more exchanges in those sectors with Asean.
Last month, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said both regions need to bring their defense structures closer and called for more investments "to ensure that common threats receive common answers."
The EU and Asean also adopted in August a new plan of action for 2018-2022 which focuses on strengthening cooperation in areas such as cyber security and preventive diplomacy.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of EU-Asean relations, which coincides with the EU's 60th anniversary and Asean's 50th.
Fontan said the two regional blocs can be expected to form new cooperation in transport, education, trade and people-to-people exchanges.
Currently, the European Union is negotiating transport and civil aviation agreements with Asean, as well as several free trade agreements with the association's member states.
Earlier this year, EU concluded free trade agreement negotiations with Singapore and Vietnam. At the moment, it is involved in similar negotiations with other members of the association.
"We continue to work bilaterally with Asean member states. Free trade agreements contribute as stepping stones toward region-to-region agreements," Fontan said.
Thailand’s permanent representative to Asean, Phasporn Sangasubana, said Asean can learn a lot from the EU’s "valuable" experiences as organization and its model of regionalism.
"We are not following the EU, but we are looking at the model and seeing how we can develop it in this region. Their experiences are very valuable," Sangasubana said.
Bridging Development Gaps: Lessons From the EU
One of the challenges that Asean must tackle as a region is to narrow the development gaps among its member states, which has been considerably steep from one country to the next.
The European Union has adopted a number of instruments to tackle this issue in Europe, though their focus has largely been stronger on provinces, rather than on countries.
According to Fontan, this is useful because development gaps exist within both rich and poor countries, and the approach provides support "on those areas in most need — not so much at the country or flag, but at the reality of the people on the ground."
He added that another approach the EU has taken to bridge development gaps in the continent has been to enhance access to higher education for all of its citizens.
The European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (Erasmus) program is the EU's model approach to increase students’ mobility and exchange across Europe. The system allows the students to have their overseas university credits recognized when they return to their home country.
In Southeast Asia, the EU has placed more than $11 million on the Support to Higher Education in the Asean Region (Share), which finances Asean university students who are interested in taking part in academic exchanges with universities within the region.
Fontan expressed his optimism that the United Kingdom and the European Union will continue to be close partners, even when Britain officially leaves the regional bloc.
"You can leave the European Union, but you cannot leave Europe. Your interest and reality continue to be European even if you move out of the EU," Fontan said.
He added that the EU "will not allow any kind of significant negative impact on Asia" with Brexit.
Last month, UK trade envoy Richard Graham expressed hopes that relations with Asean will continue to grow in the future, with relations possibly strengthened in the fields of creative media, professional services, aerospace and modern technology.