Prince at Asean-EU talks

NUREMBERG (dpa) - When foreign ministers from the European Union and Southeast Asia gather in the German city of Nuremberg Wednesday, regional security will top the agenda.

His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Brunei's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is in Nuremberg to attend the 16th Asean-EU Meeting.

Accompanying His Royal Highness is HRH Pg Anak Isteri Pg Anak Hjh Zariah.

The EU, after its successful job as a peacekeeper in Aceh, Indonesia, in 2005-06, is keen to play a bigger role in grappling with Asian security issues, such as North Korea and Myanmar.

"I think in many ways the Aceh mission could be considered by the region as an indication that we treasure the responsibility and are willing to give assistance as requested," said Friedrich Hamburger, head of the EU delegation to Bangkok.

But to show its seriousness in Asian security matters, the grouping must first join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a loose framework set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that has already been signed by China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The EU, which has already expressed a desire to enter the treaty and is likely to make a declaration to that effect in Nuremberg.

There is not expected to be much political opposition within Asean to the entry, but there is a technical one.

The treaty was written with nation states in mind as members and will require an amendment to allow a grouping such as the EU to accede.

Getting a consensus on the amendment may take time, but the EU is hopeful that it will be pushed through in time for it to announce its membership by the next Asean Summit to be held in Singapore later this year.

A second item on the agenda is the possibility of talks on a free trade agreement between the two blocs.

The idea of launching an EU-Asean FTA has been mulled for several years, and has gathered momentum after the latest failed rounds of WTO talks, but there are obstacles, not the least of which is Myanmar's membership of Asean.

Despite strong objections from the EU and United States, Myanmar was allowed to join Asean in 1997, in keeping with the grouping's goal of representing all the Southeast Asian nations.

Ten years after the fact, Myanmar remains a thorn in the side of EU-Asean relations.

The junta-run state which has kept Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the past three-and-a-half years.

It shows no sign of making way for a democratically-elected government and has become an increasing source of embarrassment for the other Asean members, who have in recent years become more critical of Myanmar's undemocratic ways.

Observers believe the EU would shy away from an FTA with Asean as long as Myanmar remains a member.

A more likely option will be that the EU will pursue FTAs with the different Asean members. "This is a question that is widely debated, not only on our side but on the Asean side, and we don't have any clear outlook on this," Hamburger said. (13th March 2007)