BRUSSELS: Amid brewing trade tensions, the newly signed trade pact between Singapore and the European Union sends the message that both parties remain committed to the values of free trade and cooperation, said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Oct 19).
He also hopes that other countries will maintain this commitment and continue to uphold the rules-based multilateral system, which he says has benefited all countries.
Mr Lee was speaking to the Singapore media shortly after signing the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) in Brussels.
The Prime Minister has had a packed schedule over the past three days, starting with a one-day official visit to Vienna where he witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding. He then flew to Brussels on Thursday morning to attend the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting and held a string of bilateral meetings on the sidelines.
When asked about the mood among European leaders given that the summit coincided with Brexit talks this week, Mr Lee said the departure of Britain from the 28-member European bloc is a “difficult separation” hence negotiations thus far have yielded no conclusion.
“But both sides would like to work something out. I hope they will.”
Mr Lee added that he has told British Prime Minister Theresa May that Singapore can extend the terms of the EUSFTA to the UK for a separate trade deal post-Brexit.
“What I told Theresa May is that after Britain leaves, what we have agreed with the EU we will also be happy to apply to Britain in the first instance. Then we have time to work out a more definitive arrangement with UK later on.”
Britain has also indicated their interest to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), said Mr Lee.
“From Singapore’s point of view, we are happy with that,” he said. “The terms have been worked out, and if they are prepared to sign on to the term as an additional partner, it doesn’t cost any competitive difficulties for us.”
Britain will also have to speak to the other CPTPP member nations – a move that Singapore is “quite supportive” of, added Mr Lee.
Other European countries, particularly those from the central and eastern parts of the region, are also keen on developing bilateral economic ties with Singapore.
"They see us not just as an interesting country, but a little bit of a model for them because they are smaller countries. Therefore they are trying to look out to the wider world and I encourage them to see Singapore as a way to explore possibilities in the Far East," said Mr Lee, referring to his meetings with leaders of Poland and Croatia, for instance, on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting.
Even though trade volumes with these countries are not substantial, Mr Lee stressed there is potential.
“These countries have quite high level of technology and science, and they are young countries anxious to find new markets,” he said. “So we are keen to make friends.”
MORE COOPERATION BETWEEN EU, ASEAN
Moving forward, Mr Lee said he hopes the EUSFTA can pave the way for a broader trade deal between the European bloc and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), though discussions remain in early stages.
On the other hand, the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement – a bloc-to-bloc aviation agreement that would connect more than 1 billion people living in the two regions – is in “much more advanced stages" with hopes for a deal by this year.
There is also interest for the EU and ASEAN to cooperate in areas, such as cybersecurity, climate change, Smart Nation initiatives and even people-to-people exchanges, making up “quite a rich agenda”, he said.
Nonetheless, there are differences. For instance, the EU sees connectivity with a sustainable perspective, and focuses on gender and equality issues.
Said Mr Lee: "So it’s not quite the same as the Asian perspective or the ASEAN perspective, but it’s something which I think we can work with."