What does Europe have to say to Asia?

Source: Le Temps (Switzerland)
Source type: Newspaper
Published on: 05 Oct 2010

When European and Asian leaders will meet in Brussels on monday for the 8th ASEM (Asia-Europe meeting), they will face a challenging reality: in today's global world, the capacity of the European Union to answer challenging questions and put forward ambitious proposals is fading by the day.

Very often, reality tells more than words. This was the case last Thursday in Brussels, when the European Commission and the European Council (representing the 27 EU member countries) gave the press a briefing on the expected agenda of the 8th Asem summit, to be held in the Belgium capital city on october 4th-5th.

To sum it up, this ASEM gathering is, on paper, a unique occasion fort "old" Europe to meet with "new" Asia, when more and more challenges, from the fight against climate change to the reform on international financial institutions, can't be resolved without bringing on board the emerging giants of the East. One would think, then, that the press room of the Berlaymont, the European Commission headquarter, would be filled with journalists to hear such a briefing.

One would think also that, as more around 40 Heads of state and governments will gather in Brussels, the European chief of diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, would have jumped on this opportunity to expose her Asian vision and ambitions. After all, the newly created European External Action service is now in its starting blocks. 29 new european envoys have been nominated mid-september. They represent the first "breed" of European Union Ambassadors, who will take over from the current EU Commission Head of delegations. Symbolically, a new european envoy to China, German national Markus Ederer, and a new envoy to Japan, Austrian national hans Dietmar Schweisgut, were topping the list...

But again, reality tells more than words and more than the hundreds of thousand euros spent by the EU on "Asem visibility": in the Berlaymont Press room that very day, only a dozen european journalists were present to hear about the preparation of the Asem Summit. They were nearly outnumbered by their asian colleagues. While the day before, as the European Commission was announcing its official reaction to France's forced repatriation of impoverished Roma's originating from Romania or Bulgaria, this auditorium was full, with hundreds of correspondents taking notes.

There was a reason for that pandemic emptiness. The Europeans had nothing to announce to Asia, or regarding Asia. The delicate question of European seats within the international financial institutions ? No decision will come from Brussels before the European Council at the end of october, despite China's expectations. The migration dilemna, and the difficult handling of asylum seekers affecting so many countries in both regions ? Not even a word, while European Human Rights Commissionner Thomas Hammarberg (whose mandate is given by the Council of Europe, another institution based in Strasbourg) has some days ago declared publicky that European asylum system is sinking, and due to explode soon. The rise of nationalism and extreme-right in Europe ? Nothing, despite the fact that Europeans love to lecture Asians about their "narrow nationalistic views"? The list could go on...Remain the trade, the business, the international financial cooperation: all subjects on which everybody knows that, too often, European and Asian views collide.

Two informations, though, came out of that pre-Asem briefing in Brussels. The first one is that 17 countries of the G20 will be present in belgium next week. That tells all about the potential of this Asia-Europe gathering, politically and economically. So opportunity, despite shortcomings, is still there. What is needed is to feed the process with ambitions, ideas and exchanges deigned to achieve certain objectives? European backed center and institutions in Asia would be more than happy to have a full plate of proposals to work on, rather than trying to catch the attention of the public and of the politicians who, most of the time, turn their heads and close their ears when the words "Europe-Asia dialogue" is mentioned.

The second information is that the question of Human Rights was not even mentionned during this briefing session. A question was not even asked on that subject by journalists from both region. All interrogations targeted commercial issues, the deadlock of the climate talkf before the Cancun conference to be held in december, or the European countries overwhilming representation within the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Another proof that the world is changing, and that the clash of views on societies and their whereabouts between Europe and Asia may be shifting to the sole economy area.

So, what does Europe have to tell Asia? Without adressing this very simple question, the Asem process and all programmes – as most of them are financed by the EU -  budgeted to enhance its visibility will fail. People from both end of the world do not want to hear anymore stories on the virtues of financial globalization or on the benefits of free trade. Those who believe, in Brussels, that this liberal, turbo-capitalistic approach of Asia-Europe relations will result into a common attraction are dead wrong. People from Europe and Asia want good reasons to get close to each other more, and to interact together culturally, politically, and business-like. But to achieve that, the EU, instead of lecturing its Asian partners, shall start by listening them more.

//www.aseminfoboard.org/admincms/mailto=richard.werly@letemps.ch">Richard Werly , European affairs correspondent in Brussels for the Swiss daily Le Temps, former correspondent in Bangkok and Tokyo. He is also a board member of Centre Lebret-Irfed, participating in the Asia-Europe People's Forum (AEPF) in Brussels from October 3-5.