Heralded by the Malaysian health ministry’s director general as an “historic event”, the first of what is expected to be a series of five annual events saw an opening address by the EU’s ambassador to Malaysia, and local representatives of several European countries’ missions to southeast Asia.
“The EU and Asean are the two largest regional integration projects in the world. We want to further our relationship with Asean,” said Ambassador Luc Vandebon.
“This is about changing policy and learning from each other’s experiences. Because consumers are becoming more picky about what they eat, this has led to a variety of standards. In the EU, we have one common benchmark, and this forum has the intention to share this.”
Sharing the joy, Dr Jeyeindran Sinnadurai, director general of Malaysia’s health ministry, added: “ASEAN standards are not as robust as EU but we cannot afford to compromise on standards. I can’t put a timeframe on harmonisation. We know that not all will meet minimum standards but they need to move that way. We want to see progressive upgrades.”
Asean’s new agreed framework is expected in just over a year, after 10 years of tortuous negotiations and numerous stalling points. The idea is to form a pure trading bloc, while cultural, political and economic union is not on the table.
Also unlike the case in Europe, the plan is to facilitate exports, not intra-union trading—something considered largely unachievable in a region where disparities between countries are ingrained and numerous.
On the agenda have been detailed discussions on food safety, labelling, traceability and the logistics of harmonisation.
However, the real reason for such cross-bloc interest is the potential for the EU to lead the way by being first to build a trade relationship with this burgeoning market.
Southeast Asia is bound to become a significant trading partner with the EU once the 10 countries’ regulatory systems become one. Singapore is already fast becoming a significant regional hub whose importance is growing across the wider Asia-Pacific; while Indonesia has a massive consumer base and provides a wealth of raw materials and manufacturing to the industry.
Malaysia now stands out as the provider of the only real halal certification worth the paper; and while Vietnam’s close links with Russia are useful, great interest from overseas is spurring the rise of Myanmar and the north-end of the region.
This amounts to great market potential, and the EU is determined to seize first-mover advantage.
The ambassador said as much, on the sidelines of the event. When asked if food safety, the supposed focus of the forum, has been trumped by trade as the EU’s thrust in the region, he nodded and replied: “You’ve inhaled it.” (By which we assume he concurred.)
Other representatives, from Philippine regulators and EU representatives in southeast Asian countries to Vietnamese scientists working on that country’s codex also agreed: that the EU is manoeuvring for first-mover advantage to set its southeast Asian stall while hoping other Asia-Pacific food powers—namely Australia and Japan—miss the boat at this jockeying stage.
“Of course it’s all about trade at the end of the day. Of course, food safety is a big part of what the southeast Asian countries are looking at as they develop their processes, but Europe is gearing up to be a key mover in the market,” said one delegate.
This is a trade game, and with fewer emerging markets and the world shrinking, it is important for trading powers to hammer home the advantage.
“It is about trade, but I think the EU is very well-placed to become a strong trading partner,” said Patric Deboyser, the EU minister counsellor for health and food safety, based in Bangkok.
“With the EU, we look to support emerging countries. We have programmes to support the poorest in the world, and much of southeast Asia’s exports go to Europe. Unlike other trading partners, when the countries we trade with face difficulties, we step in to help them fix the problems. We don’t just shut the doors when things go wrong.”
As always seems to happen at the conclusion of this type of forum, the gathering was declared a great success, though for some it provided more questions than answers.
Have the industry and consumers been called on for sufficient consultation, or have the big-hitters—the governments, regulators and consultants—taken it upon themselves to formulate a framework without their informed input? After all, it is often the case in Asia that governments feel the need to take the lead in matters without involve their constituencies and stakeholders.
The mission of the forum was to take learnings from either side, but how can this be when the EU is settled on its own food safety process and doesn’t seem likely to change things? Will southeast Asia favour the closed model of China, where manufacturers are required to reregister age-old approved products, or will it be closer to Korea, where acceptance of foreign regulators’ decisions is deemed enough for import? Southeast Asia has traditionally been strict on allowing products into the countries.
Little is yet know and all will be revealed next year. Other than that, one thing is certain: the EU is gunning to be the partner of choice to a region that could soon provide the world with its third-biggest trading bloc.