EVEN as European leaders grapple with more pressing economic concerns, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday reminded them to seize the many opportunities to partner Asia and benefit both continents.
Europe still has know-how, capabilities and resources that will be very useful to Asia in areas such as urban solutions, infrastructure development and financing, where many European companies are world leaders.
And Asia's rising incomes and growing middle-class are creating new markets for goods and services, and opportunities for institutional investors, he told leaders on the opening day of the Asia- Europe Meeting (Asem) in Milan.
"There is a lot of synergy between our two continents and I hope that we will be able to develop them and strengthen our links," he said.
One way to strengthen economic ties and benefit both sides, he said, was to work towards a European Union (EU)-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA). Speaking before Mr Lee, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso noted that the EU had concluded an FTA with Singapore late last year.
Together with other FTAs that the EU is negotiating with South-east Asian countries - Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam - these could form the building blocks for an eventual EU-ASEAN FTA, Mr Barroso said.
This year's summit, with "Responsible Partnership for Growth and Security" as its theme, has added interest because of continued weakness in the global economy and concerns over conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a member, but its President Petro Poroshenko has been invited by the hosts and will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin today - along with several European leaders - to discuss a solution to the crisis there.
The two-day meeting is a milestone, being Asem's 10th summit.
Membership has doubled from the original 26 at the first gathering in Bangkok in 1996.Croatia and Kazakhstan were yesterday welcomed as its newest members, making the group 53-strong, including the EU and ASEAN.
Asem gathers top leaders from countries that account for 63 per cent of the world's population and 57 per cent of the global economy.
Those attending include Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Asem was started as a bridge to link Asia and Europe.
In a reference to this at a closed-door session on promoting financial and economic cooperation through greater connectivity, Mr Lee said: "Since then, the link has strengthened considerably."
More countries have joined as they see it as valuable, and a few more are waiting to join.
Mr Lee felt it was timely to consider how to build on what Asem had done for the future as members mark its turning 20 in 2016.
Mr Barroso told the summit that FTA negotiations with Vietnam are very advanced, and the EU was looking for an upgraded strategic partnership with ASEAN.
Referring to Europe and Asia, he added: "As two of the most important stakeholders of the global order, we have a shared responsibility to shape a more prosperous, sustainable and fairer world."
Other leaders were expected to call for improved transport and digital links between the continents to make it easier to move goods, services, capital and people along a "New Silk Road".
Yesterday, Mr Lee met Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban separately, and spoke about enhancing bilateral relations.
Mr Lee thanked both leaders for their support for the EU-Singapore FTA, Mr Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said.
Mr Lee has further meetings today before leaving for Singapore this evening.
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