Thursday, September 7, 2006

Asian-European sounds in Helsinki

HELSINKI—Here in the land of revered Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Asian and European peoples’ voices are being aired loudly. Here is a symphony of sounds, so to speak, rising, blowing with the cold Baltic wind that is getting colder by the day.

The event is the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum 6 (AEPF 6) for NGOs and civil society organizations (CVO) that are non-state and non-corporate. The theme is “People’s Vision: Building Solidarity Across Asia and Europe”.

What better way to start than with a short ferry boat ride and an informal dinner-gathering of kindred spirits at Suomenlinna Island, a historic tourist site just off the city. After that it was back to the city and the tasks ahead. Time for long words and CVO-speak.

AEPF aims to bring all these voices from the ground to the official Asia Europe Summit (ASEM) and create alternatives to ASEM’s “neoliberalist agenda”.

ASEM would be to Asia and Europe as APEC is to Asia-Pacific and the US. Well, more or less. Heads of state, Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo, among them, are attending ASEM. ASEM consists of the member countries of the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian countries China, South Korea and Japan.

AEPF (which I am attending) consists of NGOs and civil society groups from all European and Asian countries. Created in 1996, AEPF has had forums every two years that paralleled the ASEM summit. The last one was in Vietnam. These forums are meant to give a venue for CVOs in Asia and Europe to discuss issues that affect their respective regions. (Not to confuse this with AEBF or Asia-Europe Business Forum which is also going on.)

Asian and European CVOs have called for more civil society participation in ASEM but this is not happening. These groups have had to make their own parallel gathering in order to call attention to issues on the ground. Coming out together in a big way calls the attention of world leaders and decision-makers. The Philippines has a good representation in AEPF, most the non-communist left mostly, and why not, it is also the NGO/civil society hub of Asia.

As a bi-regional network, AEPF has indeed opened a new chapter in people-to-people relations and among CVOs in Asia and Europe. Socio-economic and political experts from both regions have recognized the significance of intergovernmental relations and concerted responses to issues.

Besides strengthening linkages in these two regions, AEPF has made lobby visits to ASEM member countries to bring up the Asian financial crisis and call for an Asia Monetary Fund, European development cooperation and the EU-Latin American regulation.

AEPF has also done research on the impact of economic instruments such as the Investment Promotion Action Plan and the Trade Facilitation Action Plan developed by ASEM.

There have been exchanges on privatization of water utilities in Asian cities and the involvement of European companies. The reconciliation process in the Korean peninsula and security issues have also been discussed in the past. The AEPF network has been expanded with the inclusion of Vietnamese groups and requests from Chinese groups for inclusion.

AEPF bewails the “narrow economic focus” of the ASEM process that results in the “severe marginalization” of key concerns such as human rights, equitable development, democratization and environmental protection. Government-civil society dialogue has yet to be concretized.

AEPF sees EU-Asia relations to be in an interesting stage. Both are seeking positions in the global trade and the geo-political state of affairs. For EU, it is the inclusion of new countries, deepening integration and major constitutional issues.

In Asia, things continue to unfold. There is the restructuring of the labor market, migration, deregulation and privatization of public services. Asia also hopes to be a fully integrated region with the establishment of East Asian Community modeled after the EU.

The question: How united could East Asia be with its “patchwork of political discord, territorial conflict and economic equality”? Asia has much to learn from the EU experience.

AEPF’s long-term goal is to establish itself as a leading forum for advancing a critical understanding of Asia-Europe relations through research excellence, policy formulation and campaigning. “Critical mass” is important if it is to sustain its interregional connectivity, expertise and collaboration. It hopes “to develop into a hub of networks with genuine national and international significance leading to multilateralism from below.”

AEPF’s target groups from below are trade unions, peasant and farmers organizations, food sovereignty networks, environmental movements, human rights and development groups, women’s movements, indigenous peoples’ movements, peace movements, debt and trade justice campaigns, academics and students. Throw in the media, parliamentarians, policy makers in government, and ASEM-related institutions. It’s a very potent brew.

Deliberations, discussions and debates are still going on among the stakeholders. More on the aftermath next time.

So much for long words and CVO jargon. Tomorrow, AEPF’s last day, there will be a meeting with ASEM delegates and the drafting of the Final Declaration. And a street carnival at the center of Helsinki.