EU and ASEAN Cooperation on Sustainable Development: towards an alignment of regional action plans ? 


The Asia-Europe Sustainable Connectivity (AESCON) Scientific Conference is jointly organised by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre Competence Centre on Composite Indicators and Scoreboards, the Asia-Europe Foundation, the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia and the Center for China and Globalization. AESCON is the first scientific conference on Asia-Europe sustainable connectivity, bringing together researchers working in the field of international connectivity and their impacts on sustainable development. At a time of increasing connectivity, the conference aims to provide an academic forum to discuss global challenges on climate change, energy transition, transport infrastructure, trade and investment flows, people mobility, among others. The conference will enable to follow on the work of the ASEM Sustainable Connectivity Portal developed to support the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) policy agenda on connectivity and identify pathways to improve the future edition of this work.


The objective of this paper is to discuss and compare the EU and ASEAN sustainable development action plans and their implementation. Furthermore, it examines different cooperation and dialogue instruments that have emerged in the pursuit of sustainable development. Lastly, it assesses to what extent these instruments improve the effectiveness of the application of action plans and sustainable development law.


Despite the crisis in the global economy, politics, and social-environment between developed countries and developing countries, sustainable development law is a potential instrument that can manage to resolve disputes between industrialized countries and developing countries and reconcile economic development with environmental matters.

The consolidation of sustainable development law that was undertaken by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 and the Rio Conference in 1992 has also had an impact on social and environmental justice. Indeed, it promotes a double synergy between the protection of the environment, economic development, and State action. The recognition of sustainable development by the international community represents a significant change to the current legal system guaranteed by consistency, rationality, autonomy and structured in hierarchical layers.

However, the emergence of sustainable development in international law and its recognition raised concern, questions, and controversy about its legal prospect, sophisticated governance, and structural limits due to the proliferation of sustainable development standards and the growing number of complex institutions. Furthermore, differing practices — e.g., action plans and strategies — between the EU and ASEAN point to the need to consider whether there is a genuine joint will of both regions to create a new paradigm that can reconcile environment protection with economic development.

Thus, raising the question of whether the EU and ASEAN new dialogue and cooperation instruments of dialogue could strengthen the implementation and effectiveness of their regional action program for sustainable development.

To address the issue, this paper provides, first, a comparative perspective and an analysis of different EU and ASEAN regional action programs dealing with sustainable development in order to build on points of convergence and reduce points of divergence (1). Second, it examines the EU and ASEAN Strategic Dialogue and Cooperation instruments in order to assess whether these instruments contribute to greater effectiveness of the application of action plans and sustainable development law (2).

The European Union and ASEAN Action Plans in a comparative perspective

The EU and ASEAN play an important role in the application and the effectiveness of international law related to sustainable development by establishing regional actions plans which are consistent with the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Agenda 21, and regional strategies (e.g. Göteborg Declaration, 15-16 June 2001 and ASEAN Vision 2025).

The EU and ASEAN both developed multi-annual action plans to guarantee the protection of the environment and sustainable development. Among various action plans, the EU have so far seven Environmental Action Programme. Through the EU example, ASEAN also established suitable action plans to meet regional and local needs such as ASEAN Sub-regional Environmental Programme (ASEPs I, II, III et IV) and the Programme on nature conservation and terrestrial ecosystems. The EU and ASEAN action plans have three common priority objectives that are interconnected: a greater effort to protect the environment, support economic growth and reduce the threat hanging over human health and human well-being. Those three common objectives are a common ground between the EU and ASEAN.

Action plans and strategies are soft law instruments that can be used as preparatory work for binding legislative acts. Besides, these non-binding instruments encourage the EU and ASEAN to work toward common goals such as sustainable development and the protection of the environment.

Furthermore, environmental action plans contribute to the improvement of the implementation and effectiveness of economic and social policies and regulations. For example, sustainable use and management of natural resources reduce the loss of natural capital. Improving the resilience of the natural capital leads to positive effects on human health and well-being. Since it has promoted innovation and the protection of natural resources, climate change adaptation and mitigation measures build a resilient economy and sustainable society in the EU and ASEAN.

Although the positions of the EU and ASEAN converge on three main objectives, their priority areas and methods of implementation and enforcement diverge thoroughly. The effective implementation of the action plans relies on the capacity of the region to keep it homogeneous and compliant. Therefore, the implementation of ASEAN action plans is less effective than those in the EU. That is mostly due to the absence of a centralized institution with coercive measures and compliance procedures.

Moreover, both regions choose different priority areas and thematic strategies adapted to the context of the region and society. For example, on one hand, sixty projects from ASEP I, II and II is divided into six priority areas such as environmental education, urban environment, industries and environment, environmental management, marine environment, conservation of nature and earth ecosystem. On the other hand, the EU 6th EAP (2002-2012) and 7th EAP (2014-2020) focus on climate change, nature and biodiversity, environment and health, management of natural resources, waste, and green economy with specific objectives for 2020. The 6th EAP has a list of future legislative measures that can be adopted for the period of 2002-2012 whereas ASEP measures are soft law and are not binding.

In light of these differences and the lack of effective action plans, the strategic dialogue and cooperation instruments is key to hold EU-ASEAN relation on track, promoting mutual understanding and enhancing the effectiveness of the action plans and sustainable development law.

The European Union and ASEAN Strategic Dialogue and Cooperation Instruments: toward a greater effectiveness of the application of actions plans and sustainable development law

The EU and ASEAN constantly sought ways of improving their economic and commercial cooperation and dialogue. They consistently attached great importance to political and institutional cooperation which is a more traditional type of intergovernmental cooperation. Since the conference of Rio (1992), the EU and ASEAN have developed cooperation and Strategic Dialogue covering environmental protection and sustainable development. The EU and ASEAN engage an informal and regular dialogue on the issue of integrating gradually environmental consideration into other policies, such as economic development, trade, and plans or programs.

Beyond dialogue, sharing of experience and information, good practice and capacity building facilitate the conciliation of the action programs, strengthen the implementation of sustainable development practices and the solving of the dispute. Strengthening regional cooperation and different action programs could contribute to innovation and hence give satisfaction to States.

For example, Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), ASEAN-UE Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) and Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (READI) are innovative dialogue instruments that should substantially be used to reinforce and enhance relationships between EU and ASEAN through a more comprehensive and balanced agenda on sustainable development, especially in the environment and education sectors, justice and poverty alleviation. In addition, those instruments enable the EU and ASEAN to focus strongly on the implementation of sustainable development projects rather than meeting. Projects have been implemented such as Trans-Eurasia Information Network (2010) established by ASEM, and several seminars on clean energy and climate change. Besides, READI funded eleven action plans to support ASEAN integration such as the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity in 2010. Funding provided by the EU can be used to support sustainable development action plans, ASEAN integration, education and environmental projects, programs and sectors.

Despite the reinforcement of the dialogue and the EU-ASEAN relation, efforts must be continued, particularly in the area of protection of the environment in order to have a harmonized action plan or strategies. Indeed, the EU and ASEAN are faced with the same environmental problems such as pollution, biodiversity, forestry, and fisheries, hence, despite vicissitudes, they must pursue cooperation in those areas and find new solutions to open new horizons for mutual understanding thanks to their Strategic Dialogue.


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