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Is the EU’s image failing in Southeast Asia?

, April 17, 2024, 0 Comments

eu-ecb-european-central-bank-marketexpress-inA new survey shows the EU is losing face with business and government “elites” of Southeast Asia. Respondents showed less confidence in Brussels on issues like upholding free trade and global order.

The European Union’s reputation appears to have taken a hit in Southeast Asia, according to a region-wide survey of “elites” conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The researchers gathered the data by questioning some 2,000 representatives of academia, business, government and civil society in January and February this year. The respondents come from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei.

The results show that there is now less trust in the EU to uphold free trade or the rules-based order compared with last year.

Less than 14% of the respondents see the EU as the leading champion of the global free trade agenda, down from almost 22% in last year’s survey.

Last year, the EU ranked second as the country or bloc Southeast Asians trusted the most to uphold the international rules-based order and international law.

However, in this year’s survey, the EU slipped into third place with its percentage score dipping to nearly 17% from 23%. The bloc was behind the United Sates and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),

What was the response from Brussels?

The survey also showed there is now less confidence that the EU would “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance. As a regional average, only 41% agreed with that proposition, down from around 51% last year.

Of those who had little or no trust in the EU to “do the right thing,” almost a third said it was because they thought Brussels was “distracted with its internal affairs and thus cannot focus on global concerns and issues.”

“The findings of the State of Southeast Asia 2024 survey underline that the European Union needs to increase its cooperation efforts with Southeast Asia substantially,” said David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, described the survey as “a bit like getting a lukewarm report card. It is not all bad, but it is clear we have some homework to do.”

EU’s support for Israel making it less popular

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia, said the Israel-Hamas war has been by far the most “damaging” issue for the EU over the past 12 months.

“Many in Southeast Asia see [the EU’s] unfettered support for Israel and the carnage against Palestinians in Gaza as unacceptable,” she told DW.

Indeed, the same State of Southeast Asia survey found that Southeast Asians ranked the Gaza conflict as the most important geopolitical issue, beating the region’s own concerns, such as tensions in the South China Sea and a civil war raging in Myanmar.

Malaysia and Indonesia at loggerheads with the EU

Even before the war in Gaza escalated, the EU had been locked in a spat with Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s two largest palm oil producers, over Brussels’ deforestation legislation.

The EU plans to ban the import of goods that can be traced to deforestation. Several Southeast Asian states say this unfairly impacts their agricultural sectors and doesn’t recognize the climate efforts they are making.

In March, a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel technically ruled in the EU’s favor after Malaysia had brought a case to the global trade body. But the WTO also agreed with some of Malaysia’s complaints about the way the EU had prepared, published and administered its deforestation regulations.

EU as best ‘third option’ between US and China

Despite these issues, EU foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said that the latest results actually show that trust in “the EU as a partner to ASEAN remains strong.”

He told DW that the poll, for instance, found that the EU is ASEAN’s fourth most important dialogue partner, after China, the US and Japan, and that it maintained its leading position as ASEAN’s preferred strategic partner in hedging against US-China rivalry.

“The 2023 survey showed an uptick in the region’s appreciation for the EU’s role compared with 2022,” he added.

“While this year the EU’s position overall has weakened slightly, the overall assessment of the EU’s role remains strong and positive,” Stano said.

Stano also advised caution over reading too much into the survey, noting that the composition of its respondents by geographic location and sector changes every year. For example, researchers focused more on the private sector and governments and less on think tanks this year compared to the past.

Rahul Mishra, a senior research fellow at Thammasat University in Thailand, was also skeptical about the survey’s results.

“It’s surprising how the EU’s contributions and active engagement with the region are not properly reflected in the survey,” he said, adding that perhaps the pollsters “could have framed the questionnaire more carefully.”

What happens next?

For the most part, the survey results indicate that there is still hard work left to do for the EU to convince Southeast Asians of its long-term interests in the region.

“When it comes to shaping up our image and making sure we are seen as good partners in trade and cooperation, there is no magic spell,” said EU lawmaker Bernd Lange.

“It is all about rolling up our sleeves, sitting down with our friends in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and crafting deals that are fair, that help everyone grow and feel secure in their future,” he told DW.

“It is about showing we are in it for the long haul, ready to listen, learn and lift each other up.”