- By Nur Amani Syakirah (UNISZA)

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant impact on the economy of countries in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). Countries in ASEAN have implemented travel bans and lockdowns to contain the Covid-19 virus, which has affected several industries, particularly the tourism sector. ASEAN has convened a series of high-level meetings to address the pandemic issues while also pursuing regional economic recovery post-Covid. Besides working with one another, ASEAN governments also agreed to cooperate with non-ASEAN nations and international organisations to ensure socio-economic stability and maintain the development of the ASEAN Community. It is because no country can survive the pandemic without international cooperation. Thus, a high level of joint commitment is necessary to restore people's livelihoods and the economy in the region. 

The European Union (EU) did not hesitate to assist ASEAN in dealing with the pandemic as ASEAN is an important region for the EU's economic interests. Southeast Asia's rising significance has highlighted ASEAN as the largest receiver of foreign direct investment (FDI), with roughly 40 per cent of the EU's foreign trade passes through the South China Sea, and 20 per cent passes through the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, regional stability in Southeast Asia becomes a top priority for the EU. When the pandemic first emerged, the EU and ASEAN realised the importance of a multilateral strategy to reduce the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. On 20 March 2020, the EU and ASEAN's representatives discussed the pandemic issue and the need to maintain the supply chains and boost scientific research. Both regions have also expressed that they will cooperate with the World Health Organisation (WHO) for an equitable, affordable, and effective vaccine.

Furthermore, the EU had contributed about €800 million to the “Team Europe” package to help ASEAN manage the pandemic. According to Igor Driesmans, the EU Ambassador to ASEAN, this aid package has been set up "in the spirit of ASEAN-EU strong cooperation, building on four decades of region-to-region partnership." The "Team Europe" package includes support for health institutions and workers, healthcare equipment, namely personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitisers, financial aid for economic recovery, humanitarian assistance, and institutional support. Team Europe has also pledged €2.2 billion to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, which will help procure 1.3 billion vaccine doses for low and middle-income countries, including the member states. COVAX is a global effort to ensure that everyone, including ASEAN residents, has equal access to vaccines. 

A part of this aid package includes the 'South East Asia Health Pandemic Response and Preparedness, a €20 million joint program with WHO to support eight Southeast Asia nations in their Covid-19 response. The eight Southeast Asia nations include Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. This program, which has a duration of four years, is an initiative to improve regional efforts in response to the pandemic and build the capacity of Southeast Asia's healthcare system while focusing on vulnerable populations. Malaysia, for instance, received €1.7 million from the EU as part of the program, which will be used for several purposes, namely to support the Covid-19 National Immunization Programme and reinforcing healthcare services. At the same time, WHO will enhance its engagement and exchange knowledge with ASEAN to boost regional cooperation in their pandemic response since its member states share similar goals, interests, and problems. 

While handling the pandemic, both the EU and ASEAN recognised the necessity of regional cooperation and how it will benefit them. Hence, the 23rd ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) on 1 December 2020 marks a momentous moment between the EU and ASEAN. Both regional organisations have agreed to upgrade their Dialogue Partnership to a strategic partnership after forty-three years of establishing the ASEAN-EU dialogue. This meeting provided an opportunity to review ASEAN's and the EU's accomplishments and reaffirm their shared commitment for stronger and robust cooperation. The subject of discussion during their meeting was broad. It covered almost everything, including health emergencies, where both parties advocated further collaboration to enhance more significant responses for future crises and accelerate vaccine distribution. 

On top of that, both regional organisations established the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (AE CATA) on 2 June 2021. It is the first bloc-to-bloc air transport pact globally to boost cooperation and economic growth among ASEAN and EU nations. Through this agreement, ASEAN and the EU can recover their air transportation, which has been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic and help develop growth prospects of the aviation sector in both regions. Both sides have also agreed to keep close contact and cooperate to reduce damage to air services caused by the pandemic. 

The EU and ASEAN have always been regarded as a donor-recipient relationship for decades. There are talks that this phase may have ended with the strengthening of broader cooperation. However, the EU's assistance to ASEAN during the pandemic suggests that the donor-recipient relationship may not be entirely over. Without the EU's help, the economy in ASEAN would have been severely affected as most of the economies in ASEAN countries are not as well-developed as the EU. Some governments in ASEAN are unable to implement the same scale of recovery measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic as much as the developed countries. Hence, the question of the donor-recipient relationship between both regions remains unanswered. 

Overall, managing the Covid-19 pandemic is not an easy task. There is still uncertainty and the threat of a new outbreak of the Covid-19 variants. All countries need to work together and ensure that no one is left behind since no one is safe until everyone is safe. ASEAN and the EU relationships were tested during the pandemic and both sides passed the test. It also reflects the EU's close ties with the region and a promoter of solidarity by introducing the "Team Europe" package to assist ASEAN. Moreover, the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership and AE CATA Agreement are expected to boost trade activities and cooperation between the regions to accelerate economic recovery. The EU's aid package to Southeast Asia would undoubtedly benefit the healthcare system in the area while also ensuring the operation of national control for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic does not seem like it will end any time soon, ASEAN and the EU need to establish stronger ties and exchange resources and knowledge with each other so that their economies can stay robust during this challenging time.  


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