Why Asean and S'pore still matter to Europe

It was a bright, clear day when I first walked into my office on Sept 9, 2013. As I looked at Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay, it made perfect sense why my predecessor jokingly said meetings stretched by two minutes. Such is the irresistible charm of this country and the images it compels us to keep.

I sign off as European Union Ambassador to Singapore in a historically significant year. The EU is 60; Asean, 50; and EU, Asean mark 40 years of ties.

When I arrived here, I sensed a fairly Euro-sceptical environment. There was the sovereign debt crisis, the migrant emergency and low economic growth adding to the gloomy image of Europe.

I see today a Europe on the move, a new momentum in EU-Singapore ties which is in some ways surprising given the kind of challenges Europe has faced, the most recent of which has been Brexit. The EU has refocused, addressing issues on security and foreign policy with a global strategic outlook. I sense a positive shift in how the EU's role is perceived here in Singapore.

The global headwinds have actually strengthened our bilateral ties as well as our political and economic relationship. This has been affirmed by several high-profile visits, including that of our High Representative Federica Mogherini at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in 2015 where she presented our strategy for greater engagement with Asean. In March this year, our Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom delivered a pragmatic speech on the FTA policy in Asia.

We recognise that a fragile international environment calls for much deeper engagement and have therefore increased our cooperation with Singapore across the board. With the attachment of a Europol official here, we have expanded collaboration on cyber security and counter-terrorism with Asean and Interpol.

Support for free trade has come under attack politically in recent months. Europe has witnessed the disastrous results of protectionist, closed economic models. We therefore continue with an open and ambitious trade agenda.

Our outward-looking approach will not be affected by the United Kingdom leaving the Union, although we are sad to see them go.


Visitors browsing in Chinatown. The Asean-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement promises to increase aviation links benefiting commerce and tourism, says the writer. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Singapore remains the EU's most important economic partner in Asean and among our top 12 partners globally, when trade in goods and services is taken together. We pursue an ambitious trade agenda policy with our partners and continue with our proactive FTA policy in Asia. Next in line for signature is Singapore.

Our continued engagement with Asean is on an upward trajectory. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of our dynamic relations, Ms Mogherini co-chaired the EU-Asean ministerial meeting in Manila this month. Both sides agreed to explore new areas of cooperation in trade, security and defence, counter-terrorism and climate action.

The EU continues to be the largest investor in Asean and its third-largest trading partner.

The shelving - for the time being - of both the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has refocussed our attention on the importance of our growing bilateral relationship. We see a bright future in this partnership.

FTA negotiations have been finalised with two Asean countries, negotiations are ongoing with another four, together with discussions on a region-to-region FTA.

In Singapore, EuroCham and the EU-Asean Business Council are energetic proponents of closer, barrier-free economic relations. All of this bodes well for the future of EU-Asean.

Work on the Asean-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement - the first-ever region-to-region agreement - continues with greater intensity. This promises to increase aviation links benefiting commerce and tourism. Our office here has expanded to include officials from the European Aviation Safety Agency to move this key agenda forward.

We recognise that a fragile international environment calls for much deeper engagement and have therefore increased our cooperation with Singapore across the board. With the attachment of a Europol official here, we have expanded collaboration on cyber security and counter-terrorism with Asean and Interpol.

I will be following developments with great interest as Singapore takes on the Asean chairmanship next year and assumes responsibility as its EU coordinator.

Forging closer people-to-people ties is more important than ever before. This has been one of the crucial lessons against the trend of rising populism. We have been doing our bit here. Our popular Study In Europe Higher Education Fair to be held on Sept 30 reinforces educational links.

Equally important has been our celebration of diverse cultures. We do this through the European Union Film Festival, Singapore's longest-running foreign film festival. This year, we rebranded and presented it at the iconic National Gallery Singapore with a record viewership of 5,000. To commemorate #EU60, we organised the first-ever EU Writers Festival in partnership with the Lasalle College of the Arts.

My four years in Singapore also mark my fourth posting in this region which has its own cosmos of culture, vastly different from Europe. I have had the privilege of getting an insider's view of its richness and depth. In 2013, on our first night here my wife and I took in the bright lights from a rooftop terrace. We will be taking one last stroll through Little India. With that, we continue our longstanding engagement with this part of the world. We travel next to Australia with a renewed sense of confidence about what the future holds for all of us.


  • Dr Michael Pulch is the outgoing European Union Ambassador to Singapore. This month he moves to Canberra as the EU Ambassador to Australia.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'Why Asean and S'pore still matter to Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe