Promote awareness of EUSFTA to realise its potential: Iswaran

Source: Business Times
Article Date: 11 Sep 2019
Author: Janice Heng

Promoting awareness of the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) will help it fulfil its potential, not least for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), said Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran during his visit to Brussels.

Meeting Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and members of the European business community over the past two days, Mr Iswaran appealed to both groups for support.

Beyond official talks, it is "equally important that the parliamentarians understand and support the initiative", he said on Tuesday, meeting about a dozen MEPs from countries such as Ireland, Malta, Portugal and the United Kingdom, at a reception for the Friends of Singapore (FoS) group in the European Parliament.

The EUSFTA is an "inclusive" deal that creates opportunities not just for large firms but also SMEs, lowering transaction costs and reducing border-related issues, he said. With the EUSFTA seen as a pathway to a future EU-Asean agreement, Mr Iswaran noted that Asean's rising middle class is demanding higher-quality goods and services, from education and healthcare to consumer goods, which plays to Europe's strengths.

Some 50,000 EU firms export to Singapore, of which 83 per cent are SMEs, said FoS chair Pedro Silva Pereira. He hoped the EUSFTA would lead to an increased presence of EU firms in South-east Asia.

On Monday night, at the official launch of the European Union-Singapore Business Roundtable, Mr Iswaran noted that large firms "find their own way around the world" but small firms need help to navigate new markets and gain access to them.

Apart from the EUSFTA's early implementation, the European Services Forum (ESF) hopes to see it promoted to firms on both sides, particularly SMEs which may not be aware of its benefits, ESF chairman Noel Clehane told The Business Times.

At the roundtable - held at Scotland House, the Scottish government's base in Brussels - Mr Iswaran met Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation Ivan McKee. Mr McKee noted the long history of ties between both countries, from first Resident William Farquhar, to Singapore being the third-largest export market for Scotch whisky.

Europe's spirit exports to Singapore have grown 90 per cent over the last decade, said Ulrich Adam, director general of industry body spiritsEUROPE. As a major distribution hub in Asia, Singapore is the second-largest export market for European spirits, after the United States.

The EUSFTA will aid the industry with its high levels of protection for geographical indications as well as providing a platform for increased regulatory cooperation, he added.

Beyond trade, Singapore and Europe could look at cooperation on digital economy initiatives, Mr Iswaran suggested to both the firms and the MEPs. On Monday, he appealed to business communities to raise issues of cross-border digital agreements with their respective governments. These could include rules on the movement of data across borders, or cross-border e-payments.

On Tuesday, citing digital partnership efforts with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Chile, he added: "We hope that with the EU too, we can advance that conversation."

Speaking to the media afterwards, Mr Silva Pereira said this was definitely one area that FoS can look at. The digital economy is one theme growing more important in the European Parliament, alongside climate change and energy transition.

"These are themes for the present and the future", he said - with "future-oriented" Singapore being a good partner for such discussions.

Apart from seeing the EUSFTA through its final ratification, the FoS group will discuss its implementation, including its sustainable development commitments, Mr Silva Pereira said.

Beyond trade, sustainable development and climate change are "excellent areas for further cooperation", he added, recalling how, on a trip to Singapore, he was impressed by the Republic's concern for the situation in the Arctic.