Southeast Asian economies and the European Union (EU) agreed last Friday to work toward resuming stalled free-trade agreement (FTA) talks and counter a trend toward protectionism.
In a joint statement, economic ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said the global economic outlook has improved.
But they expressed caution over uncertainties arising from “growing protectionist and inward-looking policy stances” that often blame trade for the loss of jobs because of automation and industrialization.
“We do see tendencies of protectionism and antiglobalization across the world,” Malmstrom told reporters after a meeting last Friday of economic ministers from both regions. “Closing borders and building walls, raising tariffs—that will not be a solution, but will rather reinforce the problems.”
The challenge for leaders is to make a strong case for open, fair and free trade and to ensure it is efficient, benefits small businesses and increases investment and jobs.
Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez said statements from some world leaders, who he did not name, have added to uncertainty.
Negotiations on an EU-Asean FTA were launched in 2007 but were suspended in 2009 due to differences over ambitions for the plan. The vast gap between affluent EU nations and developing countries in Southeast Asia also complicated the talks.
The EU then started bilateral trade negotiations with individual Asean members. It has FTAs with Vietnam and Singapore and is still negotiating agreements with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Other Asean members are Myanmar, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Brunei Darussalam.
Two-way trade between the two regions stood at €208 billion ($220.5 billion) in 2016. The EU was the largest external source of foreign direct investment into Asean in 2015, at €23.3 billion ($24.7 billion).