Indonesia is the biggest country in Southeast Asia in terms of population, economy, and area. It declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945 and went through a bloody four-year war against the European power and its alliance to gain sovereignty in December 1949. A bitter colonial experience and the war of independence have left strong sentiments when it comes to Indonesian perceptions of Europeans, European countries, and the European Union (EU).
In the modern era, relations between Indonesia and the EU have been mixed: the two sides are important and useful partners to one another but can also be adversaries with strained ties. Among Indonesians, there is no homogeneous perception of the EU, as opinions depend on personal experience and knowledge.
This chapter investigates how Indonesians perceive the EU. The purpose is to provide outsiders’ views of the EU and explore new ways in which the union can engage with Indonesia and Indonesians in the future. The primary research included in-depth interviews and two surveys: one conducted by the author from March to April 2021 among 300 Indonesian university students, and the State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey conducted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore among 1,032 respondents, 129 of whom were Indonesian.1 The student survey presents the views of the Indonesian youth on the EU, while the ISEAS survey reveals the opinions of those working in academia, think tanks, and research institutions. The chapter combines perceptions of the EU from different layers of Indonesian society beyond the diplomatic corps and elites—namely, the business community, journalists, academics, and the youth.
Current Perceptions of the EU
Indonesian perceptions of the EU do not exist in a vacuum. They stem from knowledge and personal experiences as a result of social and cultural interactions with the union as an organization, with EU officials and entities, and with individual EU member states.
The legacy of European colonialism in Indonesia has left both positive and negative feelings among Indonesians. Many Indonesians seek to overcome the bitter history of colonialism and move on. However, postcolonial narratives may emerge when tensions arise between Indonesia and European countries, and there is a mixed picture regarding the role of history in Indonesian perceptions of the EU. Younger interviewees and students surveyed had a more positive image of the union: no student respondent referred to the colonial era when talking about the EU. The youth also seem to have left behind the historical burden of the EU-Indonesia relationship, as only one out of 300 students associated the union with its colonial past.
In the last two decades, there have been two pressing issues in EU-Indonesia relations. The first was in the early 2000s, when the EU joined other Western powers in condemning and sanctioning the Indonesian military for its oppression of Timor-Leste fighters. Indonesians seem to perceive the EU’s condemnation as a double standard, because the Europeans have said little about Israel’s occupation of and aggression toward Palestine, and European countries are active arms suppliers for several countries with authoritarian regimes.
The second contentious issue was a 2017 European Parliament resolution on palm oil and deforestation, which led to restrictions on imports of Indonesian palm oil products into the EU and a negative campaign against these goods. Indonesians perceived this EU policy as unfair trade competition, because European olive oil and sunflower-seed oil could not compete with Indonesian palm oil. The import restrictions also put huge pressure on Indonesian exports, as the EU is the second-biggest market for Indonesia, which is the world’s largest palm oil producer.2
The EU as a Global Actor
Traditionally, Indonesia had contradictory perceptions of Europe. On the one hand, Europe was seen to represent a group of rich and powerful countries that had obtained their wealth through colonization and exploitation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and tended to lecture the world about their values and norms while showing hypocrisy. On the other hand, Europe was associated with modernity, advanced technology, development, and high-quality products.3 This mixed picture of Europe, Europeans, and European countries seems to have spilled over to Indonesians’ images of the EU as an organization.
One of the reasons for this ambiguous set of perceptions is a lack of engagement with and exposure to the EU among the Indonesian general public. Indonesians tend to experience the EU through its individual member states in the form of travel, business, or personal connections. EU affairs in Indonesia are generally the preserve of government officials, diplomats, and a small number of businesspeople and civil society activists. For academics, EU topics are rarely visible, except among researchers and students of international relations, international law, political science, or economics.
Interviews revealed that ordinary Indonesians outside the diplomatic corps are not familiar with the EU, let alone its achievements and problems. Most Indonesians are more aware of individual EU member states, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and not usually for their politics. Indeed, France is more famous to Indonesians as a center of fashion than as one of the five states that have a veto in the United Nations Security Council. Likewise, Germany is known for its advanced technology and strong economy. Nevertheless, all of these are positive sentiments.
For a small number of Indonesian officials and academics, interest in the EU is linked to Indonesia’s engagement and role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This regional institution has been important for Indonesia’s foreign policy for the last five decades. As one of the association’s five founding countries, Indonesia continues to lead ASEAN’s institutional journey, in which the EU has been an inspiration. Yet, despite their similar status as the most recognizable organization in their respective regions, ASEAN and the EU have different cooperative cultures and have not always enjoyed good relations with one another.4
In recent years, the most vivid contemporary images of the EU among Indonesians have been the euro and Brexit. The euro is the first major regional currency introduced by a supranational organization, reflecting EU member countries’ enormous confidence in their regional integration. By contrast, Brexit, which represented the first case of a national withdrawal from what was perceived as progressive regional integration, revealed difficulties in the European project. Some Indonesians are also familiar with the EU’s latest upheavals, such as the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 migration crisis, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but, arguably, these events do not form part of Indonesians’ general knowledge because of their limited engagement with the EU.
In the Indonesian media, news about the EU is very rare. Previous studies found that Indonesian news editors did not perceive the EU as an important subject to be covered.5 Interviews confirmed a continuing opinion among Indonesian journalists that news from and about the EU has little value. One group of journalists at a mainstream media outlet revealed that they chose not to cover EU news because of limited space. In other words, they do not see news on the EU as interesting or appealing to their audiences.
The EU also suffers from low visibility in Indonesian higher-education institutions. Only one Indonesian university offers a master’s program in European studies, and its enrollment numbers are lower than for other regional studies programs. In addition, EU subjects are taught and researched only sporadically in international relations or political science departments.
Similarly, young Indonesians seem to have limited views of the EU. In general, Indonesian students have some knowledge of the union but not a deep familiarity with it. In the student survey, over half of respondents regarded the EU as an economic and trade power; 20 percent saw it as a social and cultural actor; and just under 18 percent identified the bloc as a science and technology power. Only just over 10 percent saw the EU as a military power.
Nevertheless, young Indonesians have a positive image of the EU as a credible international actor. Many students surveyed held positive perceptions of the EU’s power in all its aspects: economy and trade, society and culture, science and technology, the military, and norms. However, there was a degree of nuance within this opinion. Students regarded the EU highly as a promoter and exemplar of sustainable development. Fewer respondents had positive perceptions of the union as a promoter of human rights or as a good example of a tolerant pluralist society. Two out of three students believed the EU was a good example of democratic practices.
Among Indonesians more generally, the EU is not seen as a solid international actor. Few Indonesians are aware of the bloc’s role in international relations. The general public tends to mix up the EU and its member countries. What is more, the union’s image among Indonesians is constrained by infrequent media coverage of the EU, limited relations between Indonesians and Europeans, and the geographic distance between the EU and Indonesia—all of which lead to few direct interactions.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that only a limited number of people in Indonesia—the elites—are familiar with the EU and acknowledge its presence. Indeed, in most interviews, the EU was interchangeable with Europe or individual EU member states. For Indonesians who are familiar with the EU, the organization is rarely observed as one entity; this phenomenon was obvious for several academics interviewed.
Interlocutors from the business community perceived the EU as a group of fragmented entities, as they rarely did business with the union. Only when they applied for a visa to visit a European country and obtained a Schengen visa, which allows travel within twenty-six European states, did these businesspeople realize that the EU existed and could be useful for their business and travel. One business representative observed that the EU chamber of commerce was much less well known and less active than the chambers of commerce of EU member states, especially those that were active in Indonesia.
For Indonesians familiar with the EU, the clearest image of the union that emerged from the interviews and surveys is its role in trade and investment. This view is in line with Indonesians’ approbation of the euro and European economic advances. The perception of the euro as a strong currency and an alternative to the U.S. dollar contributes to Indonesians’ positive opinions of the EU as an economic actor.
Nevertheless, one should not underestimate Indonesian concerns about the EU’s frequent tendency to apply nontariff barriers on imported commodities. These concerns were expressed strongly not only by businesspeople but also by government officials and academics. The restrictions on imports of Indonesian palm oil were described both as an example of a normative value—the EU upholding strong environmental standards—and as a case of business competition, as European products cannot compete with those made from Indonesian palm oil. So, for some interlocutors, the EU’s championing of environmental protection and free trade was merely a business strategy to survive amid global competition, especially from emerging economies.
Beyond trade, interviewees less familiar with the EU acknowledged the union as an important power in science and technology. Few interlocutors identified the EU as a security actor, and for those who did, this perception was linked to the bloc’s role as a supplier of military equipment rather than as a strategic actor. In the 2021 ISEAS survey, only 1.6 percent of respondents (down from 2 percent in 2020) perceived the EU as having political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia.6 The Indonesians surveyed and interviewed did not mention the EU’s global role in the digital economy.
Norms and Values
The surveys and interviews revealed a mixed picture of Indonesians’ opinions of the EU as a normative power. The youth, who observe the EU from a distance because of their lack of direct engagement with the bloc, mainly perceived the EU not only as a promoter of democracy, human rights, and environmental protection but also as a good example of democratic practices, sustainable development, commitment to human rights, and a tolerant pluralist society. For the youth, the EU’s financial crisis from 2008 onward did not damage the union’s reputation as a norm setter and defender.
Meanwhile, for those interviewees who had close experience of the EU and its people, the idea of the union as a normative power did not always match the reality, especially with the rise in many EU member states of right-wing, anti-immigrant regimes and the rejection of or discrimination against refugees from conflict-hit countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For these people with greater exposure to the EU, the union’s crisis decade did influence their perceptions of it; specifically, they found inconsistencies in the practices of normative values by the EU and its member states. For example, when most of the EU decided to accept refugees from war-torn states in the Middle East in 2015, Hungary adopted a different policy by erecting defenses at its border to push back the refugees.
These interviewees were also more familiar with the challenges and complexities arising from the internal application of the EU’s normative power—namely, the fact that regional norms do not always align with member states’ interests, which means that different states have different preferences when it comes to collective norm setting.
The EU’s role in environmental protection was seen positively, especially by Indonesian civil society activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the ISEAS survey, 53.2 percent of Indonesian academics perceived the EU’s stances on the environment, human rights, and climate change as an asset for global peace and security.7 Indonesian academics also acknowledged the EU’s role as a champion of international law, although the union’s severe criticism of human rights practices in Indonesia was sometimes described as a double standard, because there is no significant criticism from the EU of Israeli soldiers’ treatment of Palestinian civilians.
Across Southeast Asia, the share of ISEAS survey respondents who were confident or very confident that the EU would “do the right thing” increased from 38.7 percent in 2020 to 51 percent in 2021.8 Among Indonesians, these percentages were higher: 52.7 percent in 2020 and 59.7 percent in 2021. This is because Indonesians hold positive perceptions of the EU’s positions on the environment, human rights, and climate change; its responsible attitude toward international law; its vast economic resources; and its political will to provide global leadership.9
Yet, the ISEAS survey also revealed that for those who have little confidence in the EU, the main reasons for their distrust were the union’s distracting internal affairs, its inability and unwillingness to assume a global leadership role, and the belief that the bloc could use its positions on the environment, human rights, and climate change to threaten Indonesian interests and sovereignty.10
Indonesian perceptions in this area are in line with recent EU engagement in Southeast Asia that has focused more on economic interests and the union’s role as a normative actor. The findings also indicate the lack of an EU identity as a strategic and security power in the eyes of Indonesians. In international relations, many Indonesians regard the EU as a major power and a noble defender of multilateralism, a rules-based international order, and international law. Indonesians also admire the EU for its economic strength, technological advances, and modern culture.
The EU and Other International Actors
Compared with other major powers, the EU is seen more positively in the eyes of Indonesians, who prefer the EU as an international partner over the United States, China, or Russia. Among other leading countries, only Japan is preferable to the EU. In the student survey, 40 percent of respondents saw China as the most threatening country, followed by just under 37 percent who said the same of the United States. Only just over 2 percent of students saw the EU as a threat to Indonesia. Nevertheless, a small number of Indonesians do perceive the EU as a threat to the Indonesian economy because of the union’s criticism of Indonesia’s use of palm oil.
For the youth, the EU is regarded as a soft power that does not pose a military threat to Indonesia. The Indonesian youth much prefer the EU to any other major destination for tourism, study, or work. More young Indonesians want to work for companies from EU member states than for firms from other major economies because of the good reputations of European companies and the benefits they offer their employees. However, EU products are seen as less desirable than those from Japan, the United States, or South Korea.
Meanwhile, China’s impressive growth and tense relations with the United States dominate geopolitical and geoeconomic discussions in Indonesia. Indonesians have long questioned and debated the positions of Indonesia and ASEAN within the competitive relations of the major powers. It is generally accepted that Indonesia maintains an independent and active foreign policy because all major powers are in fact exploitative power seekers. Indonesia has had bitter experiences with the United States, China, and almost all other major powers. The EU did not feature in these discussions until recent years, when the arrival of French and German warships in the South China Sea was seen as a sign of European support for Southeast Asian countries against China’s assertiveness in the region.
Indonesians do not perceive the EU as a political actor in Southeast Asia, but they trust the union more than other major powers. For Indonesians, the EU’s political and strategic influence ranks fourth, after that of China, the United States, and Japan.11 However, while the United States is seen as unreliable and absent as a strategic partner for Southeast Asian countries, the EU enjoys the highest level of confidence from Indonesians, surpassing China by far.12
As regards assistance for ASEAN countries during the coronavirus pandemic, the EU has been perceived more positively in Indonesia than in the other nine ASEAN members. In the 2021 ISEAS survey, one in five Indonesian respondents believed that the EU had provided the most help—after China—to Southeast Asia to overcome the pandemic.13
The EU has been able to earn credibility from its track record in global forums. Amid supply chain disruptions and business turmoil caused by the pandemic, respondents from Southeast Asian countries chose the United States and the EU as the top leaders on multilateral trade. For Indonesians, the EU is again the preferred actor—over China, ASEAN, and the United States—to provide leadership in championing the global free-trade agenda.14 In addition, Indonesians regard the EU as the most capable international actor to fill the vacuum in global leadership on the rule of law. Like other Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia has strong confidence in the EU to maintain a rules-based order and uphold international law.
Future Priorities for EU-Indonesia Relations
Amid geostrategic competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia, Indonesia perceives the EU as an alternative partner that shares the country’s interest in maintaining a fair and inclusive global order based on the rule of law and multilateralism. Going forward, the EU should capitalize on this perception and consider Indonesia more importantly as a future partner.
Given the EU’s weak strategic identity and presence in Southeast Asia in general and in Indonesia in particular, the union is not expected to become directly involved in the U.S.-China competition. Instead, the EU should focus on collaboration to combat nontraditional security threats, as this can contribute to the EU’s soft power in Indonesia and the region. Specifically, the EU can help promote peaceful conflict resolution, antiterrorism, sustainable development, law enforcement, and multiculturalism.
More broadly, the EU can focus on three priorities to strengthen its partnership with Indonesia: harnessing the union’s soft power, going beyond a purely trade-based relationship, and improving the EU’s visibility among Indonesians.
Harnessing the EU’s Soft Power
The EU needs to respond positively to the welcoming response it receives from Indonesia by applying more adaptive policies toward the country. While economic interests are understandable and perhaps natural, the EU needs to go beyond these to become a more acceptable international actor. In addition, the EU can transform its normative and economic power into soft power.
Interviewees and survey respondents alike indicated the need for the EU to balance its interests and presence in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. With China’s continued rise as the most influential economic actor in the region, the EU needs to consider strengthening its normative and soft power and applying it more consistently. For example, the EU could facilitate more cooperation on education and more actively support technology transfers to Indonesia to combat climate change. Indonesians are keen to see that the EU can establish good relations beyond its economic interests.
Given that young Indonesians generally have more positive impressions of the EU, it is important to consider their views. The EU needs to abandon its traditional approach of lecturing Indonesia and other ASEAN countries about normative values. A more open-minded and inclusive approach is needed to deal with democracy, human rights, and sustainable development in Indonesia and the region. Therefore, it will be important for the EU to support Indonesian efforts to strengthen the country’s democracy, human rights practices, and sustainable development through dialogue and collaborative efforts rather than through condemnation and sanctions. It is vital for the EU not to use its normative power to pursue economic benefit, as this will encourage Indonesia and other Asian countries to move toward alternative powers. Indonesians appreciate genuine collaboration based on win-win solutions and mutual respect.
Going Beyond Trade
Interviewees suggested that to strengthen its soft power, the EU needs a more adaptive approach toward Indonesia and other Asian countries. Indonesian businesses want greater access to the EU market and European technology, while academics expect more EU support for collaboration with European counterparts and technology transfers, especially on environmental protection, climate change mitigation, energy, food, and health.
In short, the EU should not treat Indonesia merely as an economic opportunity and market. Rather, the Europeans should be more genuine in their approach by going beyond economic interests and building more trust in their relations with Indonesia. The EU needs to expand its role in development to promote common agendas on climate change and sustainable development, human security and migration, democracy, energy security, and multiculturalism. Progress in all of these fields can strengthen the EU’s soft power in Indonesia and provide a more solid and sustainable basis for a future relationship.
Improving the EU’s Visibility
Finally, most student respondents suggested that the EU should improve its relations with Indonesia in the areas of trade, development, education, technology, and social and cultural matters. They also recommended that the EU should be more active in public diplomacy and in promoting itself to the public. Despite having a more positive perception of the EU, young Indonesians urged the EU to be not only more cooperative, less contradictory, and less repressive but also more tolerant and less discriminatory toward people from outside Europe, including from Indonesia.
To improve the EU’s visibility in Indonesia, the diplomatic representatives of EU member states in Indonesia must reach out more to the Indonesian public, the youth, and universities to strengthen social and cultural linkages. To do this, the EU can work with the Indonesian government to support more programs that can facilitate interactions between young people from Indonesia and EU countries. One strategy is to support collaboration between Indonesian universities and their counterparts in EU member states. This approach can nurture awareness of the EU as a regional organization and educate young Indonesians about the strengths and problems of European integration, the EU’s normative power, and the EU’s international role.
The EU has low visibility in Indonesian daily life, media, and universities because of its geographic distance and the low level of interaction with and exposure to the EU among the Indonesian general public. Indonesian perceptions of Europe and Europeans almost always link back to colonial experiences, although the younger generation seems to be less influenced by historical problems and perceives Europe and the EU more positively.
For the small number of Indonesians who are familiar with the EU, the predominant image of the EU is that of an economic power and trading bloc, followed by a positive view of the EU as a normative power. The EU’s strategic identity and security role appear to be absent in the eyes of Indonesians. Nevertheless, at the global level, Indonesians prefer the EU to the United States and China, with only Japan viewed more favorably. The EU is not seen as a threat among most Indonesians.
In the future, Indonesians would like the EU to be more active in its relations with Indonesia. The union should go beyond economic interests while Indonesia should overcome its tendency to associate the EU with colonialism. Relations between Indonesia and the EU can be improved if the two sides can respect each other’s differences in terms of norms and values and engage more in constructive dialogue. It is also important for the EU to be able to present itself as a unitary actor in Indonesia rather than as a set of individual member states. The EU’s priorities for the future should include efforts to deepen social, cultural, and educational relationships with Indonesia and reach out more actively to the younger generation.
Evi Fitriani is a professor of international relations at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of Universitas Indonesia.
The author would like to thank Mutaaririn Nurul Hidayah for being an excellent research assistant to the survey conducted for this study.
1 Sharon Seah, Hoang Thi Ha, Melinda Martinus, and Pham Thi Phuong Thao, “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, February 10, 2021, https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf.
2 Try Ananto Wicaksono, “Indonesia’s Fight Against the EU Palm Oil Ban,” Geopolitical Monitor, February 17, 2021, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/indonesias-fight-against-the-eu-palm-oil-ban/.
3 Evi Fitriani, “Indonesia-EU Relations: Close Partners or Distant Associates?,” in ASEAN-EU Partnership: The Untold Story, ed. Tommy Koh and Yeo Lay Hwee (Singapore: World Scientific, 2020), 85–90.
4 Evi Fitriani, “ASEAN and EU Cooperative Culture in the Asia-Europe Meeting,” in Interregionalism and the European Union: A Post-Revisionist Approach to Europe’s Place in a Changing World, ed. Mario Telò, Louise Fawcett, and Frederik Ponjaert (London: Routledge, 2015), 249–266, https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315589626-26/asean-eu-cooperative-culture-asia%E2%80%93europe-meeting-evi-fitriani?context=ubx&refId=7d159401-4839-4d83-87f3-950120b91097.
5 C. P. F. Luhulima, Edward M. L. Panjaitan, and Anika Widiana, “EU Images in Indonesia,” in The EU Through the Eyes of Asia, Volume II: New Cases, New Findings, ed. Natalia Chaban, Martin Holland, and Peter Ryan (Singapore: World Scientific, 2009), 93–123, https://doi.org/10.1142/9789814289894_0004.
6 Seah et al., The State of Southeast Asia.
7 Ibid., 45.
8 Ibid., 44.
9 Ibid., 35.
10 Ibid., 45.
11 Ibid., 23.
12 Ibid., 41.
14 Ibid., 24.