The EU and Myanmar: A partnership for democracy, peace and prosperity

External Relations
On 1 June 2016, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European Commission adopted a Joint Communication outlining a vision for a partnership between EU and Myanmar.

2013 saw the development of the EU’s priorities outlined in its Comprehensive Framework: a series of focal points specifically aimed at directing EU policy in the run-up to Myanmar’s elections in November 2015. Following the establishment of Myanmar’s democratically elected government on 1 April 2016, the EU have turned their heads in an attempt to strengthen their partnership of democracy, peace and prosperity.

Strategically located between India and China, its abundance of natural resources (fossil fuels, minerals, water and land) and labour force comprised of 55% under the age of 30 highlights Myanmar’s significant potential for both EU investors and exporters.

As part of the international community’s recognition of Myanmar’s ongoing transition, the EU has been at the forefront of international representation when it comes to the fledgling Asian nation’s journey towards substantive reform.

Myanmar’s journey towards democratisation

Beginning in 2011, Myanmar’s journey towards democratisation has been compounded with attempts to make peace with the country’s various ethnic groups in a time where socio-economic recovery has been at the forefront. The new government, led by the first civilian president in more than half a century: U Htin Kyaw has provided Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with a key role as State Counsellor, Minister of the President’s Office and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

With the EU as an integral partner in the transition with their ongoing provision of support for both the economic and democratic reform of Myanmar, the establishment of an office in 2012 was compounded by all EU sanctions, with the exception of an arms embargo being lifted, and trade preferences under the Everything But Arms scheme (allowing duty free and quota free access to the single European market of 500 million consumers), being restored.

A new chapter in Myanmar and EU relations

2013 saw Myanmar and the EU open a new chapter in their relations, laying the foundation towards a strong partnership. The ongoing engagement has been strengthened by the EU’s emphasis on quickly responding to the immediate needs of the country’s transition; providing targeted support inter alia for both the peace process and the initiation of reforming and increasing the capacity of the country’s rule of law and law enforcement bodies. More specifically, EU support focuses on four key areas: rural development, agriculture and food and nutrition security; education; governance, rule of law, state capacity building; and peace-building support. Further, Myanmar continues to benefit from the EU’s thematic and regional programmes and instruments; part of an attempt by the EU and its Member-States to align with the priorities of the new government evidenced by the new joint-programming strategy 2017-2020.

The Joint Communication looks at how best to work with all stakeholders towards consolidating democracy, creating a sustainable peace, while bringing equitable development and social justice in alignment with the priorities of the government and the aspirations of the people.

The unique level of support provided by the EU has been integral to the credible and competitive elections held in November 2015, in conjunction with Myanmar’s ongoing journey towards democratisation, national reconciliation and economic transformation, something which if successful would serve as a positive example in a region becoming of increased significance.

Challenges for the new government of Myanmar

However, it must be noted that there are still challenges that the new government of Myanmar will continue to face. Not only does democracy need to be consolidated, but also an ongoing need for the promotion of reconciliation between the various ethnic groups, continual progression of constitutional reforms, as well as capacity building in the rule of law and security sector. Due to the country’s young labour force, the government will have to ensure that they address the people’s expectations of higher incomes, in conjunction with the provision of high-quality services.

With the new democratic government, Myanmar is presented with an historic opportunity to take a fresh look at its engagement with democracy and human rights, ongoing efforts towards a sustainable peace, and its economic development. As such, the adoption of this Joint Communication between Myanmar and the EU demonstrates the EU’s commitment to Myanmar and its success both regionally and internationally, as well as key to the EU’s ongoing engagement with Asia as key towards the EU’s new focus areas: proposed actions which will be discussed with the EU Member States and the European Parliament in the coming weeks.

Bianca de Bortoli

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