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EU, ASEAN to Discuss Extensive Trade Agreement

Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh (L) talks to EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht (R), as ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, listens during the opening ceremony of the 2nd ASEAN-EU business summit meeting in Phn

A key European Union trade official wants to begin negotiations on a far-reaching free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The comments were made at a business summit between EU and Asian officials Sunday in the lead-up to this week's ASEAN summit in Cambodia.

European Union Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht is urging closer economic ties between the EU and the ten-member ASEAN bloc. During a conference of EU and ASEAN officials Sunday, De Gucht urged delegates to make "concrete progress" on negotiations for a free trade agreement between the two regions.

"We need a comprehensive, 21st-century free trade agreement between our two regions," said De Gucht, "It should tackle the full range of barriers that obstruct flows of goods, services and investment between our regions. And that means not only eliminating tariffs, but also tackling regulations that block trade in goods and services, improving the protection of intellectual property rights, and securing access to markets for government procurements, all within a legally binding framework."

De Gucht says the European Union will soon begin negotiations on a bilateral trade deal with Vietnam. The E-U has already started discussions with Singapore and Malaysia. But De Gucht says the goal is to strike a free trade agreement with the ASEAN bloc as a whole.

This year's summit comes amid the ongoing European financial crisis. De Gucht spent much of his speech Sunday assuring ASEAN leaders that the worst of the problems are over. Fifteen years ago, the situation was reversed, with Asian economies locked in financial turmoil.

In his speech, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan threw a light-hearted jab at his European counterparts.

"In 1997, Europe told us, put your house in order," said Pitsuwan. "This time, we appeal to Europe, put your house in order."

Trade between the two regions is significant. ASEAN as a whole is the EU's third largest trading partner, while the EU is ASEAN's second largest. Surin says these vital economic ties must grow to form a buffer against future financial challenges.

"This is where both the business communities in ASEAN and the EU must engage themselves to mitigate the effects of these new dynamics, through trade, through investment, through technology, to further elevate our partnership, our cooperation and our connectivity, so that more opportunities can be created and more businesses are able to take advantage of our partnerships and to alleviate or reduce the uncertainties within the two regions," said Pitsuwan.

While officials from ASEAN may be on board with negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU, opinion will be divided on the region's hot button internal issues. The main ASEAN summit kicks into full gear this week, when it's expected some members will attempt to raise the thorny issue of competing claims over the South China Sea.