Building foundation for EU-Asean FTA: EU Ambassador to Singapore Michael Pulch

EU envoy hopes trade agreement with S'pore could lead eventually to region-to-region deal

Dr Pulch says the European Union's relations with Singapore and the region will not change in the wake of Brexit.
Dr Pulch says the European Union's relations with Singapore and the region will not change in the wake of Brexit.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The European Union's ties with Singapore and South-east Asia will not change in the wake of Britain's shock vote in June to leave the bloc, according to a top EU official here.

"The EU will continue to focus on Asean. We've made it very clear we want to develop that relationship, and we've put out there the kinds of initiatives we want to pursue," Dr Michael Pulch, the EU Ambassador to Singapore, told The Straits Times recently.

In economic terms, even after Brexit, the EU will continue to be the largest investor in Asean and Singapore. It will also remain one of the region's top trading partners.

Still, Brexit will have ramifications within the EU itself. "We'll have to redefine our economic and political relationship with Britain," Dr Pulch noted, expressing hopes that the two sides would retain a close relationship.

"I think this will shift from a country that was in the EU but opted out many times, to a country that is out of the EU and will opt in on many programmes we have in the EU."

Dr Pulch, 58, was speaking last month in the delegation's office at Raffles City Tower, overlooking Marina Bay. A Chinese shanshui (mountain and water) painting by his daughter, 22, graced the wall - a sign of his appreciation for the region.

Dr Pulch, who also has a 25-year-old son, is on his fourth posting in East and South-east Asia. Altogether, he has lived and worked for 15 years in South Korea, Japan and China. He also spent several years heading East Asia affairs at the EU headquarters.

"More than half of my professional life has been spent dealing with Asia one way or another," reflected Dr Pulch, who joined the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1986. Even then, the continent he had in mind was Asia, and his first posting was to South Korea in 1988.

"This is a part of the world that has its own cosmos of culture, which is complementary in a way, and different from that of Europe. In many aspects, there is something that has been developed independently here, sometimes much earlier than what we have in Europe. "

As a delegate from the EU, he feels his mission here is two-pronged.

One task is to coordinate the foreign policy of EU member states in relation to host country Singapore. So he organises monthly meetings of ambassadors, economic counsellors and other officials to discuss issues related to Singapore and Asean. He then approaches ministries here on behalf of the EU.

He also represents European institutions here, including the European Commission and its various agencies.

"Our topics cover many areas, but one overriding theme is to make people a bit more aware of the importance of the EU for Singapore and the region...Very often, people are looking at the bilateral side of things, but when you put us all together, there is sometimes surprise at the ties - and the strength of these - that already exist."

For instance, there are 11,000 European companies registered here. The EU is Asean's second-largest trading partner after China, making up about 13 per cent of Asean's global trade in goods, while Asean accounts for about 5 per cent of the EU's global trade.

Concrete and tangible actions are needed to advance the theme, Dr Pulch said.

In June, the bloc launched EU Business Avenues in South-east Asia, a programme that aims to bring as many as 1,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from Europe on business missions to the region over the next five years. Singapore will act as a hub, with each mission starting here before moving on to at least one other Asean market.

The scheme is combined with the Enterprise Europe Network, a virtual platform that brings together data on European and local SMEs. Firms with a project or request for technology or products can source directly from the network.

The EU has started negotiations for a civil aviation agreement with Asean. Such a pact could create about €8 billion (S$12 billion) in new trade, while connections for EU and Asean consumers would be faster and cheaper, said Dr Pulch.

Singapore also concluded in October 2014 a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. "We await the outcome of the European Court of Justice opinion to be able to sign and implement this. I hope it will happen during my time here," said Dr Pulch.

"Trade is always an important instrument for bringing countries and regions closer together. While an EU-Asean FTA is not something that can happen immediately, we first want to develop FTAs with important individual Asean countries."

From the agreement with Singapore, he hopes to create a momentum that could lead to a region-to-region FTA. "The challenge here is that it should be an agreement that goes beyond the World Trade Organisation obligations we all have. It should deliver a bit more. So we have to be a bit ambitious.

"With Singapore, we have a partner which shares that view. In my view, this FTA we negotiated is the gold standard of agreements."

The two sides also enjoy a growing political relationship.

For instance, when Singapore set up the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation last year, the EU sent Europol officials to work here too.

Half a year ago, the EU and Asean launched a border management systems programme that allows greater cooperation and a better exchange of information.

"That's just one example among many others where the EU is very active in security areas that are of importance to you and us... But we also want to grow the relationship at the level of people-to-people, encompassing areas such as research, education and the arts," said Dr Pulch.

As each diplomatic posting is about four years long, what would he like to see during the remainder of his time here?

He cited the finalising of the FTA, expanding political relations - with the EU continuing to participate in Asean-led initiatives - and advancement in the civil aviation agreement as well as the business avenues programme.

There are also many programmes that the delegation runs here, from the yearly EU Film Festival to Study in Europe, an annual higher education fair that takes place this year on Oct 1. "I hope that, when I leave for the next posting, (the delegation) is in a better state than when I came," said Dr Pulch, who lives in Singapore with his wife.

His next destination might rest with EU headquarters. "But if you ask me, I'd like to continue to work in this part of the world," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Building the foundation for an EU-Asean FTA'. Subscribe