What is ASEM

1. ASEM basics
ASEM is an interregional forum which consists of 53 partner states including the 28 EU member states, the European Commission and the ASEAN Secretariat. The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was inaugurated in 1996 when the leaders of twenty-five European and East Asian countries, together with the European Commission, convened for first time in Bangkok. One year later ASEM was officially established.

ASEM’s work is divided in three pillars: political dialogue, security and the economy, and education and culture. Its declared objective is to address “political, economic and cultural issues, with the objective of strengthening the relationship between our two regions, in a spirit of mutual respect and equal partnership.”

At the global level, ASEM is similar to other existing inter-regional processes such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Although their focus and structures are somewhat different, both are non-binding processes.

2. ASEM structure
ASEM is an informal process and as such it has no secretariat. It is a platform of dialogue to address political, economic, social and cultural issues. As an informal process of dialogue, based on equal partnership and mutual understanding, ASEM facilitates and stimulates progress in other bilateral and multilateral fora. The only existing ASEM institution is the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), a Singapore based non-profit foundation charged with promoting cultural, intellectual and people-to-people contacts between the two regions. The Foundation is funded by voluntary contributions from the ASEM governments and shares the financing for its projects with civil society partners across Asia and Europe.

ASEM’s informal process is put in motion by Summits on the level of Heads of State, which are hosted every two years alternately in Asia and Europe. They provide political guidance and benchmarks for progress achieved in the evolving ASEM process.

Between summits, ASEM proceeds on the basis of ministerial meetings and working groups on various issues of the three pillars. Up to now there have been meetings of Culture Ministers, Transport, Energy, Education, Environment, Economy, Finance, Migration and Foreign Affairs Ministers, as well as Labour and Employment Ministers. There are six working groups covering -among other issues- intellectual property; standards and conformity assessment; and customs and procedures. The ASEM process has enabled the two sides to engage thematic dialogues on several topics such as, economic and financial matters; environment and climate change; development aid; employment and social inclusion; education, cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.

Senior Officials from ASEM partners hold regular meetings to coordinate the work on ASEM activities. Another coordinating structure is the ASEM Coordinators appointed from both regions facilitate the overall coordination mechanism, including the Senior Officials’ Meetings. The European Commission and the EU Presidency are the designated European Coordinators and on the Asian side, the Coordinators alternate every two years comprising one ASEAN and one non-ASEAN partner.

In terms of tangible activities, nearly 100 initiatives have been implemented over the past decade, including numerous expert-level, thematic working meetings and symposia, often involving the business communities and civil society groups of the two regions. Subjects covered have been extended from the initial emphasis on economic cooperation to include human rights, rule of law, global health threats, sustainable development, and intercultural and interfaith dialogues.

3. Other ASEM Structures
In every ASEM Leaders Summit there are other official and unofficial fora that meet just before the Leaders with a view to providing input and expertise as well as trying to influence the Leaders’ decisions. They are the Asia Europe Parliamentary Partnership (ASEP), the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum (AEPF), and the Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF). All the three Forums were established in 1996.

The Asia Europe Parliamentary Partnership is designed to promote mutual understanding between the countries and people of Asia and Europe through communication and exchanges between parliaments. The meeting is held once every two years, alternating between Asia and Europe. The Asia-Europe People’s Forum is the inter-regional network of civil society, social movements and trade unions of ASEM countries.

The Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF) aims at strengthening economic co-operation between the business sectors of Asia and Europe and to formulate business’ recommendations that are addressed ASEM Leaders Summit. It is striking that a labour counterpart of the Asia-Europe Business Forum has not been launched, although the ITUC together with ETUC and ITUC-AP has repeatedly put such a demand forward to relevant fora and meetings. An Asia-Europe Labour Forum could provide input as it already does to the Labour and Employment Ministers, and provide a forum through which the workers’ concerns and priorities will find an official route to the higher level ASEM meetings and ASEM Leaders’ Summits.

The ASEM Leaders pledged at their Summit in 2006 to better involve social partners in the ASEM dialogue process. To achieve this, the Social Partners Forum was established on the tripartite basis and contributes to the ASEM dialogue on employment and social affairs which is driven by the ASEM Labour and Employment Ministers Conferences. This dialogue aims at reinforcing regional cooperation between the EU and Asia, to strengthen the social dimension of globalisation and to promote decent work at global level.

The first ASEM Social Partners Forum convened in Brussels, in the summer of 2008 and the 2nd Forum was held in March 2010, also in Brussels. A separate meeting was organised just prior to the third ASEM Labour and Employment Ministers Conference (ASEM LEMC) in December 2010. Its purpose is to provide a platform for exchange between ASEM social partners in view of formulating their messages to the ASEM ministerial meeting. The Social Partners Forum of 2010 discussed the green jobs and recovery measures, as well as different aspects of decent work (social protection, CSR, skills and safety and health at work). The third ASEM Social Partners Forum was held in Vietnam in 2012 and discussed macro-economic policies for recovery, social protection, CSR, skills development, and green jobs. The fourth ASEM Social Partners Forum will be held in December 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria.