EU, Asean can work together to become global leaders: Panel

Europe and Asean can work together as global leaders in the light of the US stepping back and China's unwillingness to take on the task - but doing so comes with challenges.

This possible new world order was among issues raised by a panel at the second Singapore-France Economic Forum yesterday.

"The European Union has a strategic opportunity to play a bigger role on the world stage," said Professor Kishore Mahbubani from the National University of Singapore.

"It's quite clear that the US... under (President) Trump, wants to recede from global leadership, and his policy is America First."

While China wants a more stable world order, it will not push to lead it so as to avoid waking the "American dragon", he added, noting: "The only other natural candidate is Europe."

But Europe faces challenges in seizing the opportunity, he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not running for political office after her term ends in 2021, Prof Mahbubani said, while British Prime Minister Theresa May remains preoccupied with Brexit.

Former World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy said there is a need for a strong Europe to support the multilateral system against Mr Trump's "attacks in trying to revert to a more bilateral pattern".

Mr Lamy was also on the panel, which was moderated by Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, director of the European Union Centre in Singapore.

Prof Mahbubani said in response to an audience question that it would be a strategic opportunity and a "natural partnership" for Asean and the EU to come together as a new powerhouse that can help contain the two superpowers.

But the EU must learn to treat Asean as an equal and not as a subordinate organisation, he added.

Prof Mahbubani noted that the EU imposes sanctions when it has problems with Asean, citing how it stopped the EU-Asean dialogue when Myanmar was admitted.

"That habit of sanctions, conditions, must stop and I think it's in the EU's interest," he said.

Mr Lamy countered the likelihood of an EU-Asean partnership: "Asean countries could not agree that a mandate should be given to have an EU-Asean trade agreement.

"As a result, we have EU-Singapore, EU-Vietnam... which multiplies problems. It is a lost opportunity for Asean... unless we find a formula to merge the agreements."

Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'EU, Asean can work together to become global leaders: Panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe