EU-ASEAN Relations Reach New Heights with New Development Projects in Laos, the Region

Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, visits a local school in Vientiane on 14 March.

The longstanding partnership between Laos and the European Union (EU) reached new heights with the recent official visit of Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, to the Southeast Asian nation. Commissioner Urpilainen’s visit aimed to strengthen ties and explore trade opportunities between Laos and the EU.

During her visit, on 14 March in Vientiane Capital, the commissioner launched a major program to support sustainable and inclusive value chains for coffee, tea, and forest-based products in Laos.

The program, titled “Team Europe Partnership with Laos for Sustainable Trade, Investment, and Connectivity in Agriculture and Forestry (TCAF),” unveiled the same day, aims to improve connections to regional and global markets by fixing national road 2, which leads to Thailand and Vietnam.

With funding of nearly USD 102 million from the EU and its member states, TCAF seeks to foster collaboration between Laos and the EU to address deforestation, promote sustainable land use, and develop resilient crops in the face of climate change.

In her remarks, Urpilainen highlighted the program’s benefits for rural communities, including diversifying incomes, promoting decent working conditions, increasing domestic production, exporting sustainable agricultural and forest products, and boosting public revenue.

“TICAF marks a milestone and is an excellent illustration of how we have translated our Global Gateway and Green Deal objectives in our partnership with Laos while ensuring a meaningful contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and leaving no one behind,” noted Urpilainen.

At the event, Khamjane Vongphosy, the Minister for Planning and Investment, also commended the support from the Team Europe Strategy 2021-2025.

“This cooperation highlights the harmonization and consolidation of resources from the Development Partner to support the implementation of priorities outlined under the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan 2021-2025,” said Khamjane.

The TICAF program, integral to Team Europe’s strategy in Laos, seeks to strengthen partnerships between the government, academia, the private sector, and local communities. It will prioritize skills development, social protection, trade facilitation, and rural road repair, with support from other Team Europe projects.

In a separate event, Urpilainen visited a local school in the capital to celebrate the success of Khang Panya Lao, Laos’ top digital learning platform. 

The platform, launched in 2021 by the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES), aimed to address the education challenges posed by COVID-19. It is supported by the EU and is part of UNICEF’s Learning Passport program created in collaboration with Microsoft.

The Commissioner presented tablets to the MoES and the school, showcasing how digital tools can improve learning for students and teachers.

“This premiere digital learning platform, Khang Panya Lao, exemplifies how collaboration and innovation can address the challenges faced by learners and educators […],” said the Commissioner.

Education and Sports Minister Phout Simmalavong emphasized the platform’s role in bridging the digital divide and ensuring equitable access to quality education for all children. 

Over 140,000 users are now registered on Khang Panya Lao, providing education from pre-primary to Grade 12 and improving digital skills for students and teachers.

To further strengthen the relationship between the EU and Laos, Commissioner Urpilainen met with Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Deputy Prime Minister Saleumxay Kommasith. The discussions centered on enhancing ties, working together, and achieving common goals within the EU-ASEAN strategic partnership, especially focusing on the EU Global Gateway agenda.

“The EU is firmly committed to helping you [Laos] strengthen the unity and integration. So, let’s continue developing quality partnerships that bind us in protecting and doing good to the people, […]” says Urpilainen during the EU’s commissioner’s reception with Lao government officials.

The cooperation between Laos and Europe continues to grow, with aid increasing from EUR 312 million (USD 339 million) to EUR 550 million (USD 598 million) in the 2021-2025 plan, focusing on green economy, human capital, and governance.

Laos and the EU have had good relations since establishing ties in November 1975, and this year marks the 49th anniversary of their bilateral relations.

A Regional Perspective

In an exclusive interview with the Laotian Times, Sujiro Seam, the EU Ambassador to ASEAN, emphasized the pivotal role of enhancing ties between not only the EU and Laos but also with the region. Sujiro Seam believes in the high potential benefits for Southeast Asia stemming from the EU-ASEAN Global Gateway initiative.

Credit: EU Delegation to ASEAN

“Global Getaway is an initiative from the European Union to compensate for the lack of investments in infrastructure around the world, [which] focuses on five key priorities such as transportation, energy, digital connectivity, health, and education and research, ” he said.

Highlighting the substantial investment of over USD 10.8 billion allocated to ASEAN regions, the ambassador emphasized the far-reaching impact of these projects, both locally and regionally. Notably, he pointed out the significance of initiatives like TCAF in bolstering local products and infrastructure.

Seam also shed light on various regional projects, such as green transitions in Indonesia and Vietnam, water initiatives in Cambodia, and port developments in Malaysia, all aimed at fostering sustainable development across the region.

Pledging to deepen ties between the EU and ASEAN nations, Seam reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to actively engaging with ASEAN, particularly through strategic partnerships established in 2020. He emphasized the EU’s dedication to being a proactive ASEAN member, ensuring participation in key summits and fostering regular dialogue with ASEAN nations.

Meanwhile, as discussions continue between EU and Lao officials, including talks with Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Deputy Prime Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, the prospects for deeper ties and collaborative initiatives remain promising.