The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional organisation comprising 10 southeast Asian countries, which promotes intergovernmental cooperation. The organisation encourages economic, political and security integration among its members, such as the European Union. At times when commitment to an open and rules-based trading system is questioned in some parts of the world, it is particularly important to strengthen ties with our like-minded partners.
For this reason, I believe it is time to further improve relations with our partners in southeast Asia. The European Parliament has been a strong proponent of deeper, more comprehensive relationships in the region for several years.
At the beginning of May, we reaffirmed this commitment in a joint mission of the foreign affairs committee and the ASEAN delegation at the association’s headquarters in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.
The region is one of the most dynamic in the world. Its growth is projected at an average of five per cent annually to 2020. Indonesia lies right in the heart of southeast Asia and is a key partner for Europe. It is the world’s third largest democracy with the fourth largest population, and the largest economy in the area.
Located along some of the world’s busiest trading and navigation routes, the country covers a vast geographical area of both land and sea. Following more than 30 years of authoritarian military rule, Indonesia has undergone 15 years of democratic, political, social and economic transformation.
Ties between the EU and Indonesia have already started to strengthen as the state was the first ASEAN partner to sign a partnership and cooperation agreement with the EU, which entered into force in 2014.
Bilateral trade in merchandise between the EU and Indonesia amounted to €25bn in 2016. The European Union represents the third largest non-oil and gas export market for Indonesia, behind the United States and China, while European companies currently employ more than 1.1 million workers in the country.
However, economic relations between the EU and Indonesia go far beyond trade in goods, services and foreign direct investments, extending to areas such as competition, intellectual property rights and sustainable development.
The EU and Indonesia o¬fficially launched negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement in July 2016 and four rounds have been concluded thus far. This will permit closer cooperation in a broad range of areas beyond market access like tariffs and other barriers to trade.
These include public procurement markets, environmental protection and social development. The ambition is to conclude this far-reaching agreement to further deepen economic relations by the end of this year.
Although a great deal has already been accomplished, work still remains.
Given the size of the two partners, trade and investment levels are well below the volume that could be expected. What is more, the human rights situation in Indonesia remains a concern. The use of the death penalty, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and restrictions to press freedom are particularly worrying.
In response, the European Parliament adopted two resolutions in 2017 on human rights abuses in Indonesia and will continue to advocate for further progress.
On a more positive note, the Constitutional Court in Jakarta stated, in November 2017, that indigenous faiths have the same rights as other faiths, standing up for the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and the state promotes an open and tolerant form of this belief.
The ‘Indonesian Islam’ expresses the importance of religion and of the unity of the country. This combination of freedom of religion and the promotion of the progressive ideals of large religions could act as a role model if it were promoted further.
The key to our successful cooperation is that we are like-minded partners: both the EU and Indonesia are convinced that regional integration and cooperation will help deliver political stability, economic prosperity and peace. Collaboratively we are addressing global challenges such as climate change, cybercrime, piracy and terrorism.
Parliament’s foreign affairs committee has twice recommended, in own-initiative reports, upgrading the relations between the EU and Indonesia to a strategic level. It is time to strengthen our ties.