Editor   18 Nov 2010   Brussels e-Briefings

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Richard Werly writes:

When European and Asian leaders will meet in Brussels on Monday, 4th October 2010, 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 European Council officials (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 this Monday and Tuesday.

To sum it up, this ASEM gathering is, on paper, a unique occasion for 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 headquarters, 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. Twenty-nine 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 Heads of Delegations. Symbolically, a new European envoy to China, German national Markus Ederer, and a new envoy to Japan, Austrian national Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, are topping that list...

But again, reality tells more than words and more than the hundreds of thousands of euros spent by the EU on a quasi-invisible  ASEM visibility project: in the Berlaymont Press room - the European Commission Brussels headquarters - 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 is a reason for that pandemic emptiness. The Europeans have 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 migrations dilemma and the difficult handling of asylum seekers affecting so many countries in both regions? Not even a word, while European Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg (whose mandate is given by the Council of Europe, another institution based in Strasbourg, France) has some days ago declared publicly 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 pieces of information, though, are worth mentioning as European and Asian leaders are pouring in Brussels. The first one is that 17 of the G20 countries will be present in Belgium this 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 designed to achieve certain objectives. European-backed studies centers, universities, and intellectual institutions in Asia would be more than happy to have a full plate of proposals to work on, rather than trying desperately to catch the attention of the public and of the politicians who, most of the time, turn their heads in another direction and close their ears when the Europe-Asia dialogue  is mentioned.

The second piece of information is that the question of Human Rights has vanished from all pre-summit press releases. A question was not even asked on that subject by journalists from both regions. All interrogations targeted commercial issues, the deadlock of the climate talks before the Cancun conference to be held next December, or the European countries overwhelming 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 say to Asia? Without addressing this very simple question, the ASEM process and all programmes - most of them are financed by the EU - budgeted to enhance its visibility will fail. People from both ends of the world do not want to hear anymore stories on the virtues of financial globalisation 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 growing common attraction are dead wrong. People from Europe and Asia want good reasons to get closer to each other, and to interact more together culturally, politically, and in the field of business. But to achieve that, the EU, instead of lecturing its Asian partners, shall start by listening them more.

Questions? Post a comment below, or e-mail Richard Werly at richard.werly@letemps.ch

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