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Brussels, 21 January 2019
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Let me start by thanking you, Vivian [Balakrishnan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore], for an excellent experience in preparing and co-chairing this excellent meeting we just had with our Ministers on the ASEAN [Associations of Southeast Asian Nations] side and on the European Union side. It is impressive to see how many Ministers travelled all the way to Brussels – and it is a far-away place and a cold place on top of it – for having this important Ministerial Meeting that we just had. I would like to thank you for your leadership in preparing the good outcome of today's deliberations.
First of all, I am pleased to say that we agreed today, in principle, to upgrade our relations to a Strategic Partnership between the European Union and ASEAN. As we both said in our meeting, it is indeed a recognition of an already strategic partnership we are having in many different fields, which is extremely important for our citizens, for our people, but also for sending a signal to the rest of the world that the two most advanced and most successful regional organisations' processes in the world – ASEAN and the European Union – not only stand firmly behind multilateralism and a cooperative and regional approach, but also come together to promote a common agenda globally.
Now, more than ever, it is vital that on key political and security issues, we work more closely together - even more closely than before - region-to-region, to defend and promote multilateralism and a global rules based order. We both believe in rules-based multilateralism, in regional cooperation, in a cooperative approach to international issues, and not in geopolitical spheres of influence. We have this as our approach internally, and it only comes natural to share this approach.
We have a joint interest in upholding the principles of free and fair trade and to counter the rise of protectionism. We have been making progress in negotiating bilateral free-trade agreements with a number of ASEAN countries - of course the last of such agreements we signed was with Singapore in October here in Brussels when you were last here, Vivian [Balakrishnan] - and our ultimate goal remains to establish a region-to-region Free Trade Agreement, as we have reiterated today.
We are also moving closer to concluding a region-to-region Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA) with ASEAN, which would be a first of its kind and a landmark in our cooperation.
We have also shared the ambition to establish a meaningful EU-ASEAN Connectivity Partnership, based on our respective strategies on connectivity that have so much in common.
We also discussed very openly, very clearly some specific issues that are relevant for all of us.
As regards the situation in Rakhine State, the European Union has stressed the importance of finding a comprehensive and durable solution. We urged the implementation of the 2017 Myanmar-Bangladesh arrangement on the return of displaced persons affected by violence. We have underlined the need to provide for full and unhindered humanitarian access for the UN and humanitarian agencies to the region affected and to establish conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of displaced persons. We also underlined the importance of accountability and of the need to address the root causes of conflict and displacement, notably through the full implementation of the recommendations of the Annan Advisory Commission – something we have discussed several times with our partners in the region and directly with the authorities in Myanmar.
On our part, our partners today have heard a very firm and strong commitment from the European Union side to work with them on the sensitive issue of palm oil. We will establish an European Union-ASEAN Working Group to look at all the related issues in depth. We all have a common interest in addressing the possible negative environmental and social impacts of the production of palm oil, by ensuring that it takes place in a sustainable manner.
We also discussed several other issues of specific interest, either on the EU side or on ASEAN developments, and most of all, our common agenda from climate change to cybersecurity, and the list is so long – we were joking that it could take us a couple of hours to debrief you fully on all the exchanges we have had.
Let me conclude by saying that we have certainly come away from our meeting – for sure on the European Union side – inspired by the fact that half-way around the world there is another group of countries, that we know very well, that are working together to bring their people together, to integrate their economies and to stand as one on the world stage as an effective force for stability and progress.
Our partnership is a natural one, the decision to upgrade it today to a strategic level is a natural choice. We are proud of this choice today and we are very much looking forward to continue working together very closely.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I166549
Q: I wondered if when it came to Cambodia and Myanmar, whether it came to any progress in avoiding the withdrawal of trade preferences?
We had the opportunity to discuss this bilaterally several times - at my level, at Commissioner [for trade, Cecilia] Malmström’s level - in particular in the margins of the most recent ASEM [Asia-Europe Meeting] Summit here in Brussels in October last year. The EU-ASEAN Ministerial meetings are normally not set for tackling at the common table of Ministers specific country-related issues, but contacts and meetings are ongoing at the margins of it.
Let me say in general terms that, as I said, on some of the country-specific issues and in particular on the situation of the Rakhine State, messages were passed in a very clear manner from the European Union and Member States of the European Union side. We had, I think a very positive exchange - very frank, very open and very constructive in terms of how also cooperation between the EU and ASEAN can help in finding a way forward.
On our general approach to the Trade Preferences, you know that it is a balanced mix between, first of all, respecting the rules and the principles and the logic of the Trade Preferences on the Everything-But-Arms set-up, meaning that rules have to be respected and standards foreseen have to be upheld and for this reason we have started to look into some of these issues bilaterally. But at the same time we always believe in engagement and dialogue and cooperation to try and solve problems that we want to address together.
So, I do not have news for you today. Work is ongoing on a bilateral level, not in the format of the EU-ASEAN Ministerial.
Q: Did you also discuss global issues like the Iran nuclear deal or new developments in the Middle East like Syria?
We discussed several global issues and regional developments, both in Asia, in Europe and in the Middle East. As you know, our cooperation with ASEAN Member States is constant, also in the UN framework - I think in particular of the presence of Indonesia now in the [United Nations] Security Council. We have always cooperated on Middle Eastern issues constantly and I have updated the Ministers on our work to continue to have a full and effective implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. This was a point that we discussed among us, together with others.
Q: I wanted to know how does the Working Group on Sustainable Palm Oil tail with the Directive with which the EU is currently setting standards for sustainability imports of crops that will count towards renewable energy targets?
We have agreed to establish a Joint Working Group to address all different issues that might be sensitive relating to palm oil. Vice-President [of the European Commission, Maroš] Šefčovič is hosting a dinner tonight - and you know that he is the Vice-President of the Commission in charge of this specific Directive and this specific work. So I am sure that he will address some of the technicalities and the future steps together with our partners in the region that are particularly involved in this.
We have been constantly engaging with producing countries in ASEAN and elsewhere on this topic. We will continue to do so. And again, as I was saying, today we have stepped up this engagement by establishing this Working Group that will look at all the different related issues.
I would like to say two things to conclude: first of all, we have a common interest in addressing the possible negative environmental and social impacts of the production of palm oil by ensuring that it takes place in a sustainable manner. We have taken a co-operative approach in addressing this issue - not today but since several years - and I would like to conclude by saying that we appreciate the importance of this economic sector as a source of growth and employment in producing countries, including for smallholders. We do have a common interest in addressing this issue in the way that reduces as much as possible impacts on the social and economic level for the producing countries. And I am sure that we will find a common way forward on this.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I166550