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EU investors court Southeast Asia

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Business leaders from the European Union and ASEAN member states yesterday discussed the future of mutual trade and investment as crisis continues to threaten Europe and economic integration challenges the 10 Southeast Asian states.

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“The most important thing is to make sure the EU will remain one of ASEAN’s major markets and investors,” EU ambassador to Cambodia Jean-François Cautain told the Post at the ASEAN-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh yesterday.

The European Union was the biggest investor in ASEAN and its second-biggest trading partner in 2010, with US$10.2 trillion in bilateral trade, or about 10 per cent of all ASEAN trade.

Bilateral investment was about $347 billion in 2010.

Tone for trade

Europe’s economic downturn poses a threat to the two regions’ business relationship, and ASEAN’s attempt to bring law, tax and trade regulations into harmony by 2015 would ease transactions on a number of levels should crisis restrict trade, Cautain said.

Business accommodations presented to ASEAN ministers today by visiting European companies would set the tone for trade between the two geopolitical and economic organisations this year, he said.

Representatives of Air France and hotel giant Accor will attend the meetings.

In an address yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called the summit an important forum for businesspeople and government officials to review and evaluate progress.

He also acknowledged the potential effect Europe’s sovereign debt crisis could have on ASEAN exports.

Insecurity over integration

Doubts exist over the region’s ability to integrate into the so-called ASEAN Economic Community by the deadline.

Experts have said huge gaps in finance, infrastructure and law will hold the effort back.

“I don’t believe there will be economic integration by 2015,” Stefano Poli, president of the EU-ASEAN Business Council, said yesterday.

Regulations and economic backgrounds were too varied to close the gap in three years, he said.

Protectionism in Southeast Asian countries, and with trading partners, was a barrier to EU-ASEAN trade, Poli said.

Officials in certain sectors across the region were still safeguarding markets for local players, especially in service industries, he said.

"Realistic goals"

Cambodia, however, was “one of the most open markets for investment”, and its status as one of ASEAN’s least developed countries would make it a pragmatic chairman for the association this year, Poli said.

“Cambodia can make a difference in the sense that it can set realistic goals,” he said.

Vo Tri Thanh, vice-president of Vietnam’s Central Institute of Economic Management, told the Post yesterday Cambodia was in a position to voice its opinion.

“In political-economic terms, they have an advantage as a small country. It’s easy for them to say something.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Don Weinland at don.weinland@phnompenhpost.com

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