Navigating the intricate yet promising alliance between the EU and ASEAN


Global Europe

Picture of Shameer Khanal
Shameer Khanal

Cooperation Lead for ASEAN at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)

The relationship between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a delicate dance—one that intertwines political manoeuvring, economic interests and shared global responsibilities. As these two regions engage in dialogue and various forms of partnerships, it becomes evident that their collaboration extends beyond mere trade agreements. Let us delve into the intricacies of this partnership and explore how both sides can foster a more robust relationship

1. The economic ties

The EU and ASEAN are economic powerhouses. The EU boasts a combined GDP of over $18 tn, while ASEAN’s collective economy surpasses $3 tn, and is increasing at a rapid pace. Their trade relationship is pivotal for both regions’ growth and stability. However, it is essential to recognise that economic ties cannot thrive in isolation. The EU’s engagement with ASEAN should not be solely transactional. It must delve deeper into understanding ASEAN’s diverse markets, regulatory nuances and cultural intricacies. A more nuanced approach is essential to avoid overlooking critical aspects. A deeper understanding of each other’s markets, regulatory frameworks, institutional settings and cultural distinctions is crucial.

Trade negotiations should not be approached as a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Instructive policies rarely yield sustainable results. Instead, an iterative approach—one that involves continuous dialogue, adaptation and mutual learning—is necessary. The EU and ASEAN must recognise that their trade relationship is akin to a delicate regional and global ecosystem. Each policy tweak, tariff adjustment, introduction of standards or market access agreement affects the delicate balance. Therefore, both sides must engage in open conversations, respecting the sovereignty and unique challenges each member state faces.

Exchanging on good practices of regional economic cooperation and integration, while at the same time offering platforms and channels to better link each other’s markets on a regional as well as bilateral standpoint is crucial to benefit sustainable economic development

2. Political diplomacy and security cooperation

Beyond economics, the EU and ASEAN share common political stability and security interests. Their formal dialogue relations, which began in 1977, have evolved to encompass a wider range of issues. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) serves as a platform for discussing security challenges, conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy. The EU’s active participation in the ARF underscores its commitment to regional stability.

In an interconnected world, Europe’s prosperity and security are intricately connected to developments of geopolitical importance in ASEAN. Multiple threats to regional security in Southeast Asia arising from tension in the South China Sea, the unresolved conflict in Myanmar andthe spread of terrorism and fake news, to name but a few, are of great concern to EU citizens and the European single market alike. For example, a disruption of maritime trade routes and supply chains connecting Asia and Europe would have profound consequences for the prosperity of both regions.

The EU and ASEAN possess vastly different regional architectures. Understanding ASEAN’s diverse political landscape—ranging from democratic nations to controlling regimes—is essential. However, institutional inertia and a slow pace of regional integration has made it difficult for ASEAN to act in critical situations such as the current conflict in Myanmar. Who, if not the EU with its decades-long history of peace, could highlight the benefits of deepening regional integration? The promotion of deeper regional integration to achieve security and long-lasting peace is a fundamental conviction of the Europeans. ASEAN will welcome such experiences, as it operates on a limited unanimity principle that can potentially deter the Association from growing together more closely.

Youthful ASEAN is poised to benefit from the EU’s extensive experience on matters of Political-Security with impulses for further growth and institutional reforms – impulses that stem from a long history of peace the EU can credibly pass on as best practice examples when it comes to regional cooperation and integration

Examples of how to build stronger and deeper regional security structures can be found within the EU in various sectors, from regional cooperation of enforcement agencies to regional security frameworks and institutional structures for single security policies, such as arms control and maritime security. Regional integration in individual policy areas also always means simultaneous growth of the overall organisation and leads to a strengthened regional security architecture. The EU can potentially play a more active role in unity with ASEAN to achieve its self-imposed ambition of becoming a global security provider.

In addition,  ASEAN provides the EU the opportunities to invest more in people-to-people diplomacy, fostering cultural exchanges, educational programs and joint research initiatives. By engaging in respectful dialogue, the EU can navigate the complexities, build trust and exchange closely on approaches to regional conflicts

3. Climate change: a shared responsibility

Climate change transcends borders, affecting both the EU and ASEAN. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events and resource scarcity demand collective action. The EU’s commitment to the Paris Agreement aligns with ASEAN’s aspirations for sustainable development. Joint research, technology transfer and capacity building efforts can accelerate climate resilience.

The EU may consider leveraging its expertise in regional cooperation in climate mitigation – renewable energy – circular economy practices, climate adaptation, – green infrastructure – and disaster risk reduction and climate finance – regional carbon emission market. Collaborative projects can benefit both regions. By addressing climate change together, the EU and ASEAN can lead by example on the global stage.

4. Investing in dialogue facilitation

Dialogue is the cornerstone of any successful partnership. The EU in equitable cooperation with ASEAN must allocate resources to facilitate dialogue at various levels. This includes not only high-level diplomatic exchanges but also grassroots interactions. It should continue and emphasise promoting cultural exchanges, student exchanges and business forums that can potentially bridge gaps and promote mutual understanding.

Moreover, the EU must continue actively engaging with ASEAN’s private sector, civil society and academia. These stakeholders play a pivotal role in shaping policies and fostering innovation – including aspects of consumer and data protection, societal impacts of Artificial Intelligence and digital economy development, good governance or adjusting approaches to technical education and training for new skills and labour market challenges.

The EU can strengthen its political and trade ties with ASEAN by investing in dialogue facilitation

A blossoming partnership

In conclusion, the EU and ASEAN are not merely trading partners but collaborators in shaping a better world. As ASEAN continues to prosper, the EU must adapt its approach. No instructive policy can replace genuine dialogue, mutual respect and iterative progress. In this regard, the EU could benefit from long-lasting and solid bilateral cooperation of EU member states with ASEAN and its member states. Together, they can navigate the complexities of our interconnected world and build a partnership that transcends economic gains—a partnership grounded in shared prosperity and shared responsibility.

This article is a joint contribution from Shameer Khanal, Roland Treitler, Florian Miss and Michael Weiss, who all work as Principal Advisors for the GIZ – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH implementing projects funded by Ministries of German Federal Government as well as the European Union together with ASEAN in areas such as pollical security, trade integration and climate change.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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