Europe and Asia upholds multilateralism through trade deals and bilateral visits ahead of ASEM.
The 12th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit kicks off on Thursday (18 Oct) with the theme: “Global Partners for Global Challenges”. The theme is said to be highly relevant in light of American protectionism under the Trump regime and rising Chinese influence in the Asian region. In this context of multiple challenges, ASEM aims to promote multilateralism, openness, and seeks partnership and dialogue instead of confrontation. Specifically on the agenda will be the WTO reforms, Paris climate change agreements and the Iran nuclear deal as well as connectivity. ASEM is seen as way to shore up European and Asian connectivity with a rule based approach in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Besides the BRI, there are other plans in the region headed by ASEAN, Japan, and India, with the aim of linking the greater Asian region. The EU’s “sustainable, comprehensive, and rule based connectivity” strategy will see the launch of “Connectivity Platform” and “Connectivity Inventory”, the first of which is a data-set to measure the quality and quantity of connections while the second is an inventory of lessons with ideas for improvement. With many competing designs for connecting the region, ASEM has to tackle the challenge of “overcoming normative and political differences” in these approaches.
At the sideline of the ASEM summit, the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the Investment Protection Agreement will be signed. A trade and investment agreement between Vietnam and the EU has also been adopted hours before ASEM is set to begin. The agreement aims to remove 99% of tariffs between the Europe and Vietnam. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that by doing so, “the Commission shows its commitment to open trade and engagement with Asia” in anticipation of the summit. Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said the EU-Vietnam trade agreement is an ambitious deal and is set to pave the way for region to region agreement in the future. The EU will also ensure that Vietnam complies with labor rights regulations and will guard against human rights violations as well by reserving the right to suspend the deal.
This is in keeping with the EU stance on stepping up human rights. The EU has recently announced that it is considering trade sanctions on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis, and has started the process to withdraw Cambodia from a tariff free agreement called Everything But Arms (EBA). Members of European Parliament have denounced many countries in Asia for human rights violations and want EU to demand action from their partners at ASEM. They also pointed out that rising nationalism and populist movements have undermined European Union values back home.
Some Asian leaders such as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had embarked on bilateral visits to EU member states ahead of the ASEM summit. Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong arrived in Austria on Wednesday (17 Oct) on an official trip to meet Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The chair of ASEAN and the rotating president of the EU council say they are keen to “strengthen cooperation between Europe and Southeast Asia”. The highlight of PM Lee’s visit to Austria was the signing of several bilateral MOUs to establish better cooperation in climate change, cybersecurity and digitalization.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also visited the Netherlands and Belgium before attending the summit in Brussels. Netherlands and Belgium are China’s third and sixth largest trading partners in the EU. This trip was the first bilateral visit by China to the Netherlands since 2004 and showcases China’s and Europe’s increasing cooperation to uphold multilateralism. A Chinese researcher commented that Li’s visit will connect China’s BRI with Europe’s connectivity strategies. Premier Li’s trip to Belgium reinforced the strong diplomatic ties between Belgium and China and sought to deepen their robust relations amidst the threat of unilateralism
Migration and Border Control – Debates heat up over Frontex and Immigration
During a joint media conference on Monday 15th October, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his Czech counterpart Andrej Babis expressed their opposition to strengthening Europe’s external borders. In September, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had proposed his plan to increase Frontex border patrol by 10,000 border guards, hoping to better regulate the migrant influx. However, several member states have expressed concern that enlarging the role of Frontex will reduce their sovereignty. Morawiecki also worried that increased Frontex personnel would mean lesser funding for structural development.
Meanwhile in Italy, the Interior Ministry arrested the mayor of Riace, Domenico Lucano, on the grounds of committing irregularities to the benefit of asylum-seekers. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini claims that Lucano had organised “marriages of convenience” to benefit asylum-seekers, and ordered migrants who were settled in Riace to be transferred to accommodation centres.
The Calabrian village of Riace has been a model for integration, reviving the depopulated community with the restoration of abandoned houses and the reopening of artisan workshops, while settling migrants in the municipality. The National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI) has made calls to stop Salvini from dismantling a model for integration, urging him to go to war instead with the mafia, which perpetuates organised crime in Calabria.
Lucano’s arrest comes shortly after France and Italy crossed swords on 8th October last week when EU ministers met in Lyon for immigration talks. Salvini criticised French President Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders for being too soft on immigration, while French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe urged Salvini to drop his “posturing” on immigration and help find a European response to the issue.
Germany, however, continues to embrace migration. It has rolled out a new “skilled workers immigration law” to admit skilled workers from third countries. The law not only applies to graduates, but generally to people with professional qualifications. While this law essentially reiterates existing opportunities, it holds symbolic power. However, it is important to note that Germany still distinguishes clearly between economic migration and asylum, and the new immigration law will not impact on Germany’s asylum system.
The EU has been criticised for a lack of internal solidarity, with member states insisting on ad-hoc short-sighted responses. As Germany and other EU countries grapple with migration issues, an op-ed by a senior analyst in the Elcano Royal Institute highlighted the growing cognitive dissonance between the global elite and ordinary voters on issues of migration. He pointed out that migration creates winners and losers, and if Europe’s political elite fails to compensate low-skilled native workers who feel threatened by immigrants, then the continued surge of anti-immigration sentiments among locals who feel that they are losing out can be expected.
Yet the sense of crisis might be inflated and inaccurate, as suggested by the Cross-party Group consisting of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) working on Asylum and Migration. In a recently published article, they point out that irregular border crossings and asylum applications have seen enormous drops since 2015, and the sense of crisis has been perpetuated by populists to manipulate voters towards short-term political ends. The European Parliament has proposed legislations and policies but are hindered by leaders of member states unable to reach a common position on migration. As heads of states meet in Brussels on 18th October, the group of MEPs calls for them to conclude and adopt the asylum package. They hope EU leaders will demonstrate a shared effort in managing migration to stop the ongoing toxic discourse of crisis, especially in the lead up to next year’s European Parliament elections.
Brexit divorce agreement at an impasse on Irish Border question
The EU Special Summit on Brexit arranged on 17 October (Wed) in the hope to break the impasse in the Brexit negotiations did not provide any breakthrough. Instead, after Prime Minister May’s address to the 27 EU leaders, several of them cited that there was no new proposal from the UK, and hence there is no plan to convene another meeting in November unless Barnier, the EU Chief negotiator reports that there is “decisive progress”. Additionally, the President of the European Parliament said that both sides had also mooted the idea of extending the transition period by an additional year.
The main point of contention is how to decide on a customs arrangement that would avoid a hard border in Ireland in the absence of a future trade agreement between UK and the bloc after the 21-month Brexit transition period. May has rejected the EU’s backstop provision, which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs union, as it would separate NI from the UK internal market. The Democratic Unionist Party(DUP) of Northern Ireland is also against any arrangement that divides the UK in the Irish sea. May proposed a temporary UK-wide customs arrangement intended as “an insurance policy” that would end after the transition in December 2021. However, this is rejected by Brussels.
Prime Minister May is likely to face even more challenges from internal divisions in her own government as she head home without an agreement. Her own conservative colleagues and hard Brexiteers are losing faith in her negotiations after conceding that the UK may have to remain tied to EU rules and laws beyond December 2020. They fear that staying in the EU customs can lead to further financial implications in the form of UK contributions to the EU. On the other hand, Labour Party member Jeremy Corbyn, has criticized the Tory government of being “too weak and too divided” to protect British interests. He questioned whether the Conservatives can put their internal squabbles aside to negotiate a deal in the public interest. To this, May has replied that “Labour can play politics; the Conservatives deliver to the people of this country”.
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