The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has adopted at its March plenary session an opinion on the Joint Communication "Connecting Europe and Asia – Building blocks for an EU Strategy", issued by the European Commission and the EU High Representative in September 2018. The EESC considers it to be a seriously missed opportunity, with many significant strategic gaps, little ambition and no real depth of vision offered as to the development of EU's relationship and connectivity with Asia.
At a time when the balance of global economic power is moving eastwards and Asian global purchasing power is growing exponentially, Asia needs to be high among EU priorities in terms of strategy and connectivity but this is not reflected in the Joint Communication. The EESC believes that key economic and geopolitical realities have not been reflected, with little overt recognition of the broad diversity or complexity of Asia. It points out "with deep concern" at least 17 areas where little if any reference is made to recent critically important developments affecting both the EU and Asia.
Among these gaps, the opinion points out that “there seems to be a major disconnect with many recent developments within Asia, especially those that may in time present strategic challenges to Europe itself”. There is no mention, for example, to Asian-led connectivity or investment initiatives pointed towards Europe, above all the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government which offers actual trade, infrastructure and financial support, and directed not only at Europe, but which affects every other country in Asia, as well as Africa and further afield. This initiative is a strong signal of China’s desire to play a greater role globally and increasing sphere of influence.
The EESC believes that it is imperative that the EU makes a formal response to the BRI. The Communication was expected across Europe and Asia to be a key part of this response, but the BRI is not even mentioned. On one hand, the EESC shares the concerns of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Chinese pledge to invest USD 3 billion in several countries, including 11 EU member States, could create large debts for relevant European governments “to Chinese state-owned banks … and create few jobs in Europe”. Equally, the EESC considers it “essential that a formal connection between the BRI and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) be established”, which is looked at in some detail.
As stated by Jonathan Peel, the Rapporteur,
the BRI has to work both ways not least as this will also
require China to open its markets.
The Opinion also looks at the lack of reference to the major trade deals the EU has reached with leading Asian economies, notably Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. The is little reference to India, Iran or the EurAsian Economic Union. In other areas of key connectivity, such as energy, transport links, or digital connectivity, the Opinion considers the Communication weak, whilst water is not mentioned at all. The EESC also recommends that much greater resources be put towards the EU’s relations with Asia, home to two thirds of the world’s poor according to the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The role of civil society is also analysed in the opinion. The EESC welcomes the inclusion of the concept of people-to-people connectivity in the Communication, that specifically refers to “connectivity and mobility among students, academics and researchers" as key to mutual understanding and economic growth. Education related initiatives such as Erasmus+ can play a significant role in this area, but many Asian countries are more interested in mutual recognition of qualifications, greater mobility of labour and easy access to visas. The Opinion points out “Asia also has high-end skills to offer”.
The EESC also regrets that there is no reference to any of the existing civil society dialogues between EU and Asia in the Communication, especially the flagship civil society monitoring bodies set up under these significant trade agreements, a major innovation for many Asian countries, where “the role and concept of civil society is marked different”.
Human rights and the approach to social issues vary enormously across Asia, where the countries differ widely from each other. As mentioned by Jonathan Peel, the Rapporteur for the opinion, no one size can fit all, and Asia can never mirror the EU. However, the rapporteur also states that
the EU needs to do more to win hearts and minds in Asia and that the Communication has disappointingly little to say about human rights, the rule of law, good governance and democratization.
Asia accounts for some 60% of the world population, for some 35% of EU exports and 45% of its imports. Annual trade between Europe and Asia reaches some €1.5 trillion, and Europe and Asia together represent 60% of the world's GDP. Four major Asian countries (China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India) are among the EU's top trading partners and Free Trade Agreements (FTA) are already in force with the Republic of Korea and Japan, while others have been reached or are being negotiated with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.