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PM Lee: Singapore keen on new air transport deal with EU

Luxembourg PM backs deal; says it'll take a while before any talks can start

SINGAPORE is eager to have a new air transport deal with the European Union (EU) that, if realised, will mean more flights in both directions and greater opportunities for business and tourism.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday that the proposed EU-Singapore comprehensive air transport agreement would help pave the way for a wider open-skies agreement between the EU and the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).

At this stage, the EU-Singapore deal is still an idea, but Singapore is keen to get the process rolling and start negotiations when the time is right, said Mr Lee during a joint press conference with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel yesterday.

Mr Bettel, who voiced his support for the EU-Singapore air transport agreement, noted that it would take a while before any talks could start, given that the European Parliament was gearing up for its upcoming elections in May.

"We hope that once the elections are over, we will be able to pursue the matter, get the support from many of the EU countries and get the EU to commit to a mandate to start negotiations," said Mr Lee, adding that the process could take "some years" to complete.

The EU already has comprehensive air transport agreements with many countries, including the United States, Canada, Morocco and Israel.

Last month, it was announced at the EU-Asean Aviation Summit in Singapore that talks on the EU-Asean comprehensive air transport agreement would get underway. These negotiations, too, are likely to last a long time before a final deal is reached.

According to latest figures, air traffic between the EU and Asean nearly doubled over the last 15 years to reach more than 10 million passengers in 2012.

The EU-Asean air transport market has a combined population of 1.1 billion and is expected to grow at an average rate of 5 per cent a year over the next two decades.

Mr Lee, who was visiting Luxembourg for the first time, also thanked Mr Bettel for his support for the early ratification of the EU-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA).

This FTA, the first between the EU and a Southeast Asian country, is a "strategic commitment" by Europe that it will stay open for business with Asia, said Mr Lee.

The FTA will benefit Luxembourg companies as they will enjoy perks such as immediate duty-free access for all imports from the EU and Luxembourg, he added.

The many Luxembourgish companies already operating in Singapore, including all-cargo airline Cargolux, can tap a larger pool of suppliers in the region through Singapore, said Mr Lee.

Bilateral trade between Singapore and Luxembourg grew more than 60 per cent last year. Luxembourg was the Republic's third-largest EU investor and 12th biggest globally, with total foreign direct investment stock estimated at $21.7 billion as at the end of 2012.

It was a whirlwind visit for Mr Lee as he spent about eight hours in the city, after taking a 40-minute flight from The Hague where he had attended the Nuclear Security Summit.

After his meeting and lunch with Mr Bettel, Mr Lee and his delegation met Luxembourg's other senior figures including Grand Duke Henri, the current head of state, and former prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Mr Lee also extended an invitation to Mr Bettel to visit Singapore soon, which the Luxembourg leader accepted.

"(Mr Bettel) told me he was last in Singapore three years ago and enjoyed the skyline from the Marina Bay Sands. The next time he comes, I think the skyline will be somewhat improved," said Mr Lee to laughter from his host.