I’ve just returned from a trip to China, Korea and Singapore, the main focus of which was to maintain the positive momentum in EU-China relations that has been driven by a number of successful summits with our Asian partners. Indeed, over the last few months, a succession of top-level delegations – Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers – from these countries have visited the EU to discuss trade and economic cooperation and sharing know-how.
Why are these discussions important? Well, primarily because EU-China trade is worth more than €430 billion! The EU is China’s number one trading partner and it looks increasingly likely that China will soon also become the leading market for EU trade as well (it is currently in second place, behind the US).
But it’s important to note, I think, that this is anything but a one-way street; China wants EU technology and know-how just as much if not more than the EU wants Chinese goods, manufacturing skills and access to consumers. For example, during my talks in China, it was clear that the European concept of ’smart cities’ and the development of ‘green’ technologies are both particularly important to China, not surprisingly given the continuing demographic growth there. Indeed, China is planning to build dozens of new ’smart’ cities, which will be home to millions of Chinese people, and hopes to use European technology and know-how to avoid the congestion and pollution problems that plague many of China’s largest cities, including Beijing.
Trade relations also dominated my talks in Korea, which signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU in September 2010, leading to a 20% increase in bilateral trade over the last nine months since it came into force on 1 July 2011, and this despite the global economic crisis. I am convinced after my discussions that we are moving ever closer to a similar agreement with Singapore: the EU would like to conclude negotiations on a free trade agreement by the end of this year. Trade between the EU and Korea and Singapore combined is more than €60 billion, and the EU is both Korea and Singapore’s most important trading partner. There is much to gain for both sides from liberalising trade relations, not least in the area of ICT, an increasingly important driver of the economies of both Asian countries. On the back of this, both countries have also seen a steady increase in the importance of e-government – indeed, Korea is the world leader in this regard. And with seven of the top ten countries for e-government coming from Europe, there is certainly much that we can teach each other in this important area of administration.
Education is also a priority for both countries. Up to 80% of the population of Republic of Korea is interested to get a university degree, and having been invited to give a speech and take part in a discussion at prestigious Yonsei University, I can certainly confirm that students’ interest in European affairs is considerable! Singapore, meanwhile, has a particular focus on R&D, and I was happy to see a high level of interest in and appreciation for European scientific research, as well as in Europe’s longer term ambitions in this area.
Increasing levels of trade and scientific cooperation underline the growing interdependence of Asian countries and the EU. From my visit, it’s clear to me to the economic and commercial dynamism of the Asian economies is going to be one of the key external sources of economic growth in the EU. It’s not surprising, then, that the first question I was asked at the start of every meeting there was the same – what are we doing about the euro and the future of the euro area.
What struck me most was that the success of the euro is not just an issue for Europe – the economic dynamism of Asia, and virtually of the whole world, depends in no small part on the EU’s prosperity. The EU is the largest economy in the world and as such it carries an immense global responsibility for overall economic development, as recent events have clearly shown. That’s why my message was clear: the EU has put the necessary structures in place to overcome the current economic crisis and emerge even stronger from the other side, measures that will reinforce its position as the world’s most important commercial and economic powerhouse.