November 23, 2007
ASEAN-EU : TRADE DEAL
ASEAN, EU agree to speed up trade deal
ASEAN and the European Union agreed Thursday to expedite negotiations for a free trade agreement, saying relations should not be held hostage by their differences over military-ruled Myanmar.
The two sides agreed earlier this year to launch talks on creating a free market zone embracing 37 countries and roughly one billion people, but neither has said when those negotiations might begin.
At a commemorative summit to mark 30 years of diplomatic ties, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the 27-nation EU adopted a plan of action to broaden and deepen their relations.
Both groups pledged in a joint communique to "enhance economic relations by expeditiously negotiating the ASEAN-EU free trade agreement."
Two-way trade totalled 137 billion dollars in 2005.
However, disagreements on how to deal with alleged human rights abuses and political repression in ASEAN member state Myanmar shadowed the meeting, with the two sides at odds on whether sanctions can force the junta to reform.
"While Myanmar is undoubtedly a significant issue, ASEAN-EU relations should not be held hostage by it," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told a joint news conference.
Lee reiterated ASEAN's position that sanctions are not an effective way to pressure Myanmar's ruling generals to adopt democratic reforms following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September that left at least 15 dead.
"In most other places of the world they have not worked and here we believe that not only will they not work but they will be counterproductive," he said, urging the EU to "take a broader strategic interest in ASEAN."
Whatever their differences on the crisis in Myanmar, Lee said "this should not stop us from cooperating on other issues because if we do, it is a loss to both sides."
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said both sides wanted to see democracy return to Myanmar but simply differed in their approach.
"We think the sanctions are important in order to proceed... but most important is to underline that both organisations are doing their best in order to give concrete and important steps towards democracy and protection of human rights," he said.
Last month, EU lawmaker Glyn Ford of Britain said here that the junta's crackdown on dissent had made it impossible for the EU to sign any free trade agreement that included the country.
EU foreign ministers on Monday imposed fresh sanctions on Myanmar's military regime, which included an embargo on the import of timber, gems and metals from the isolated military-run state.
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