Interregionalism  – multi-lateral meetings between different regions – has become an important aspect of governing global economic, financial and political issues. One such interregional exchange is the Asia-Europe Meeting, (ASEM). The 8th meeting just has been taking place in Brussels 5th-6th of October. ASEM is an informal dialogue bringing together Heads of Governments of the 27 EU Member States and 16 Asian countries, the European Commission and the ASEAN Secretariat.

The first ASEM meeting took place in Bangkok in 1996 in order to foster economic development and counterbalance the US influence in the Asian region. While these meetings are informal and non-binding, they are nevertheless aiming at strengthening economic and political relationships between countries. This year’s summit was dominated by the  financial and economic crisis. Under the heading ”More Effective Global Economic Governance” European and Asian officials agreed upon closer economic cooperation as well as financial coordination, and stressed the importance of sustainable growth and climate protection goals.

Such meetings – as international trade politics in general – suffers from the lack of democratic participation and support of citizens. Negotiations take place behind closed doors, the negotiation processes are intransparent and the parliaments are largely shut out of such processes. Consultative bodies and advisory committees are dominated by business interests or business affiliated lobbying groups.

As a response to the lack of transparency and democratic checks and balances, unions and NGOs found counter summit, the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (ASEF) where labor unions and social movements across Asia and Europe expressed their concerns about marketization and demanded  a “social and market regulatory dimension” of trade negotiations.

But in how far does challenging this global economic governance institution contribute to any kind of change?

At first sight it looks like a success story: Labor, environmental and human rights issues play a promomient role in the final ASEM declaration and the ASEM leaders promised a people-to-people approach. But the disappointment about the discrepancies between words and action is huge.

During the last couple of years, and partially driven by the EU’s internal democratic deficit debate, ASEM leaders started to stress a people’s to people’s approach and integrated for several “side events” into the official program “The Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF), the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (ASEF) , the Asia-Europe Foundation conference (ASEF), a trade unions summit and Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership. All gatherings formulate their own statements and recommendations for the ASEM summit.

Yet it was only the business forum, which could directly discuss their input with the ASEM governmental representatives in an official business brunch. Unions have been so far unsuccessfully in gaining the same status and access as the business forum. Since 2008, they are however invited to participate in the preparatory events for the labor and social ministerial meetings taking place within the ASEM framework.

The opportunities for civil society organizations to engage politicians have never been as good as during this years meeting in Brussels. It was the result of the strong involvement of local unions and their good connections to the political system, which was no the case during the meeting in Beijing in 2008 (for China the AEPF 7 it was the biggest civil society meeting since the NGO Women’s Conference in 1995) and Hanoi in 2006.

From 2nd until the 5th of October several hundred people have been meeting at the 8th Asia-Europe’s Peoples Forum (AEPF) in order to discuss issues of trade, investment, decent work, food sovereignty and climate change and alternative paths to free trade agreements.

The goal of this meeting was is to bring together representatives of European and Asian civil society o promote cooperation and enable them to voice their recommendations for the ASEM meeting.

After a day of discussions a list of demands was formulated, which was presented to the prime minster of Belgium, Yves Leterme, and in policy dialogues with representatives of the European Commission as well as in the European Parliament. The groups called for a re-regulation of businesses and a better enforcement of existing rules and policies: “Despite the existing laws, regulations, standards and mechanisms, governments have failed to prioritize human rights, environmental security and labor rights, over the profits of companies. There has been a lack of political will in implementing regulation and establishing redress mechanisms for companies operating in and beyond their territories.“ (see recommendations)

The proposition of the AEPF included the introduction of a financial transaction tax, a governance reform of International Financial Institutions, independent investigations and stakeholder consultations on the EU-Asia trade policies, legally binding instruments which define the legal responsibilities of international companies and international legal redress mechanism for violations of rights in global supply chains, and several issues/measures for foot and water protection, climate justice and the promotion of decent work.

The policy dialogues with European Commission’s (EC) officials were lively and produced heated debates. In particular Asian unions and NGOs highlighted the discrepancies between the official statements and promises and the actual realities they face everyday. When an EC official stressed the EU’s commitment to promote decent work, a representative from Bangladesh answered: “We don’t demand decent work. `Decent` is something for your countries. We want the right to life. We demand a living wage.” In debates with the European Parliament Asian unions and NGOs learned that although the European Parliament has considerably more rights than most of their own national parliaments, the impact on the EU trade agenda is still very limited.

In the one hour dialogue with the Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme, he welcomed the message from civil society and expressed support for the demands on the creation of decent jobs, social dialogue, and social protection “I’m grateful for your strong message and for the signal it gives. It is important that your message will be put forward.” And indeed, the AEPF was at least meantioned in the final declaration of the ASEM meeting, which also contained direct references to the decent work agenda, the importance of social dialogue or support fo the Gloabl Jobs Pact of the ILO.

The Nevertheless, the distance to the poeple feld huge.The impression of “participation without influence” is well known to European civil society organization within the EU framework. In some Asian countries however, such participatory mechanisms are lacking completely.

Despite the lack of influence, this meeting was not considered to be in vein. As Walden Bello has put it in his speech: “ASEMs main benefit is that it created the opportunity for civil societies between Asia and Europe to form very solid links. The major reason to support the ASEM meeting is because it enables these civil societies to connect.” It remains to be seen if in the future such transnationalization results in more representation and if this inter-regional networks can really contribute to a development of “multilateralism from below”.


support for the Global Jobs Pact of the ILO