OFFICIALS and business representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) met on Monday in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to discuss challenges and benefits of entering into free trade agreements, particularly with the European Union (EU), the organization’s largest export partner.

The event organized by EU-Asean’s “Enhancing Asean FTA Negotiation Capacity Program” focused on the two groups’ trade policies and emerging trade issues.

The meeting will also include a stakeholders’ dialogue to enable participants to share their knowledge and experience on key issues such as “the political economy of free trade agreements, the challenges of trade agreement implementation and post-trade agreement adjustment.”

Asean groups the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei Darussalam.

Cambodia is Asean’s 2012 chairman.

“With a series of 10 workshops all over Asean, starting here today in Siem Reap, the EU-Asean cooperation will provide a forum for Asean trade practitioners and officials to reflect on trade issues, which really matter,” Andreas Roettger, head of the economic and regional cooperation of the delegation of the European Union to Asean, said in a statement.

“We expect a meaningful contribution to enhance mutual understanding on trade matters and the negotiation processes, because trade is such an important affair. Free trade is not only essential for economic development and growth in support of competitiveness, consumer welfare and poverty reduction, it brings together people and ideas,” he added.

Roettger noted that Asean and EU are “important trading partners” with EU being the largest export market for Asean.

“Both regional blocks can only benefit if this partnership prospers further,” he said.

Aside from holding dialogues and discussions on the challenges and benefits of the FTA, the event will also engage participants in negotiation simulation exercises that will focus on trade negotiating techniques, methodologies and tools.

This four-day event coincides with Cambodia’s hosting of the Asean Senior Economic Officials Meeting (SEOM) in Siem Reap on January 17 to 19.

The “Enhancing Asean FTA Negotiation Capacity Program” is a +2.5-million (approximately P138 million) technical cooperation program funded by the EU for the benefit of Asean member-states.

According to a statement from the European Union, the program supports Asean economic integration and facilitates the organization’s preparedness for participating in free trade agreement negotiations.

It will also provide “high-quality training, cutting-edge research and analysis, and bilateral FTA negotiations simulations for government and private sector representatives of the Asean member-states and Asean Secretariat officials.”

The program will also conduct awareness-raising seminars on a wide range of international trade, investment, globalization and related political economy and socio-economic issues, which will be opened to the public, private and civil society sectors.

Asean is EU’s third largest trading partner outside of Europe, with the United States and China taking first and second place.

In 2010, more than +175 billion (approximately P9.6 trillion) worth of trade in goods and services between Asean and EU was reported.

The EU is Asean’s largest export partner with more than +90 billion (approximately P4.9 trillion) in 2011, which ensured an annual trade surplus to Asean of nearly +25 billion (approximately P1.3 trillion).

Both organizations started regional negotiations in 2007 that were designed to contribute to Asean’s process of regional integration.

Although these negotiations are currently suspended and the process is following a bilateral track, the EU still believes that a region-to-region free trade agreement would make political and economic sense in the long term, and the strategic objective of concluding an agreement with the Asean as a region is retained. –BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON REPORTER, Manila Times