CHIANG MAI, Thailand — On the eve of the recent important meeting between the European Union and ASEAN in Vientiane, Laos, a great uneasiness and disappointment prevailed in ASEAN capitals because of the perceived lack of interest in ASEAN on Europe’s part.

What conclusions can be drawn from this sad state of affairs now that the meeting is over?

First, both sides must accept that this otherwise laudable institutional exercise between the two groupings is showing signs of “conference fatigue.” There are simply too many regional and other international meetings taking place. Overlapping becomes unavoidable, undermining ample good will. Thus, the fact that the EU summit in Nice, France, almost coincided with the Laos conference could remove part of the blame for the low level of European representation in Vientiane.

Second, protocol is still as relevant as ever, even in this era of globalization and fast-paced activity. Asia is — rightly — particularly sensitive to nuances of protocol regarding the caliber of diplomatic representatives in embassies or the level of ministerial delegates at conferences. “Rank” is not seen as an empty shell but as conveying deeper messages on intentions. In fact, this is not an exclusively Asian perception, but an international axiom.

Third, the thorn of Myanmar has to be at some point completely dissociated from the ASEAN-EU framework. Not in the sense of decreasing pressure on the Yangon regime but of channeling it more appropriately. According to the international press, the European side now seems to have adopted the stance that its relations with ASEAN are “too important” to allow second thoughts over Myanmar. If this is the case, the inappropriately low level of EU delegates to Laos points to a rather serious contradiction.

The Laos meeting itself was apparently a compromise: not to dismiss the EU-ASEAN exercise altogether, but to hold it far from European capitals, noisy with pressure groups opposing the Myanmar leadership. If this compromise is further diluted, as actually happened with the presence of lower-ranking delegates in Vientiane, the EU-ASEAN framework, which in the past was characterized by high ministerial participation, will wane. A negative signal will thus be sent not to different pressure groups, but to public opinion at large.

Now, before animosities and complaints from the ASEAN side are further exacerbated, the EU side should realistically re-evaluate and clarify its priorities, the scope of the old framework and its relevance in the present circumstances. The same goes for the ASEAN side, which should proceed to its own analysis regarding both the liability of the membership of Yangon as well as the need for a more realistic approach toward the EU at the dawn of the new millennium.

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