THE EUROPEAN Union (EU) said differences with ASEAN on sustainability matters must be resolved as the two blocs seek to revive free trade talks, the EU Ambassador said, adding that “gaps” between the two sides must also be addressed in terms of government procurement policies.

The EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2007, pausing negotiations two years later, after which the EU pursued bilateral deals with individual ASEAN member-states.

“There is still a bit of an ambition gap between what we see as a region-to-region FTA and what ASEAN would have in mind, including on issues such as sustainability, including on issues such as government procurement and so on,” EU Ambassador to ASEAN Igor Driesmans said in a virtual event Thursday.

“I think if we want to make progress on this, we will need to try to close a little bit this ambition gap, and at the same time accelerate on our bilateral negotiations because these will obviously be the building blocks for a region-to-region FTA.”

The EU has FTAs with two ASEAN countries, Singapore and Vietnam.

Mr. Driesmans said that the EU is actively negotiating trade deals with a number of other ASEAN states.

“We continue to enhance this region-to-region engagement in trade and investment, including this possible region-to-region trade agreement. Actually, over the last couple of years, we’ve been exchanging… proposals on what is also called framework for a possible future region-to-region FTA.”

Kok Li Peng, Singapore Permanent Representative to ASEAN, said the regional FTA is still on the table.

“The road to one will be long. From Singapore’s experience negotiating our FTA with the EU, it is complex, but I think that the rewards are worth it,” she said.

“I think there’s renewed interest among EU member states and in the European Commission to look at this prospect carefully, especially since ASEAN concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership last year.”

The Philippines has signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact that includes China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and all 10 ASEAN members.

The first round of FTA negotiations between the Philippines and the EU was held in May 2016. An EU-ASEAN Business Sentiment Survey in 2019 said that enthusiasm from businesses on the potential trade deal has waned since talks stalled. — Jenina P. Ibañez