Today is St. Valentine’s Day, a day when lovers all over the world celebrate their passion for each other. The nice thing about this holiday is that is for all ages: young people send each other secret cards, while those of us in more mature relationships use Valentine’s Day to renew our affection for each other.
That is also how I like to think about the relationship between Indonesia and the European Union. We have known each other for a long time. Our relationship is mature and we know a lot about each other’s strengths and failings. We don’t have many secrets from each other. Sometimes (but very, very rarely) we have a small argument but we can have a mature discussion and resolve our differences. And at the end of the day we understand each other and are happy together.
This is the fifth Valentine’s Day I have spent in Indonesia. So I have been thinking about five things which I, and other Europeans, love about this marvelous country.
First, Europeans love Indonesian people. I am lucky to have made many great friends in this country. Indonesians are famous for their smiles and are usually very polite. But I also really like it when Indonesians, as they often do, tell me frankly what they really think. I have particularly enjoyed my visits to Indonesian universities and the debates I have had with young students there. Students are articulate and fearless in expressing their opinions. If they disagree with me, they will say so. I find this very refreshing.
This is also the essence of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy and the reason why it has built one of Asia’s most robust democratic societies over the last decade or so. The country’s free media, lively civil society and open politics are still fairly recent developments, but already it is hard to imagine Indonesia without them. This has brought Indonesia closer to Europe, where democratic traditions are older, but continue to evolve to meet the challenges of a changing world.
European companies also love the energy, skills and hard work of Indonesia’s people, which is why more than a million Indonesian people are employed at some 1,000 firms from Europe which have invested in this country.
Second, Europeans love the sheer diversity of Indonesia. The different customs and languages of peoples like the Batak and Minangkabau in Sumatra, the ancient traditions in Java, the customs in the Toraja region of Sulawesi and the Papuan highlands are fascinating. It is truly remarkable that Indonesia’s founding fathers managed to shape this diversity into a coherent whole.
As in Europe, sometimes it’s not easy to assimilate different communities living beside one another, particularly where customs, religions or languages may differ widely. It is important to remember that human rights are universal and we all have a duty to respect and defend the rights of minorities. These are issues which we discuss in the annual Indonesia-EU human rights dialogue.
Both the European Union and Indonesia have made huge progress, however, in unifying many different peoples and traditions behind a common purpose and working for the welfare and security of all, and as in any relationship we continue to learn from each other.
Third, Europeans love Indonesian products. Many of us have become too fond of Indonesia’s delicious food, as our expanding waistlines show.
But it is not just Indonesian food which Europeans love. Through the difficult global economic environment of the last five years, Indonesia’s exports to the European Union have continued to hold up strongly across many sectors, including food but also manufactured goods, timber, palm oil and other commodities. Exports to the European Union totaled 14.7 billion euros ($19.8 billion) in 2012, well above the levels seen before the global crisis hit in 2007. And Indonesia maintained a strong trade surplus of 3.2 billion euros with the European Union.
I still believe, however, that there is strong untapped potential in our trading relationship. I would love to see Indonesia-EU bilateral trade realize its potential and overtake the levels of the trade which other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, enjoy. The best way to achieve this would be through a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and I hope that 2013 will see us enter negotiations.
A CEPA would not just boost trade but also encourage greater investment from the European Union, which would help Indonesian industry climb up the value chain and manufacture more and higher value products to sell to EU admirers.
Fourth, Europeans love Indonesia’s landscapes. The majestic wealth of Indonesia’s natural heritage is truly breathtaking. Java’s volcanoes, the forests of Kalimantan, the coral reefs throughout the archipelago are just the beginning of a endless wonders. It has been a pleasure for me to visit some of them during my time here. It has also been a pleasure to see how President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government has stepped up Indonesia’s efforts to tackle climate change and deforestation.
I am proud that the European Union has played a part in this by working in partnership with Indonesia to combat the trade in illegal timber. Later this year the entry into force of our Voluntary Partnership Agreement will help us both promote the trade in legal timber from Indonesia while discouraging illegal timber.
Finally, and on a more personal note, I love Indonesia’s golf courses. More are being developed all the time, and I hope to try out a few more of them before I leave this country.
More broadly, the developing tourist infrastructure in Indonesia is sure to attract more Europeans to Indonesia — not just golfers like me, but business people, students and travelers. Travel in both directions between the European Union and Indonesia is growing each year.
I have been immensely fortunate to experience some of the attractions of Indonesia over the last five years. As links like these grow, I have no doubt that it will lead more Europeans to fall in love with Indonesia and its people.
Julian Wilson is the EU ambassador to Indonesia.