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EU and Singapore must continue to 'stay the course' on free trade: Iswaran


BILATERAL trade between Singapore and the European Union (EU) has held steady despite the pandemic, and both sides must continue to "stay the course" on free trade even as populist pressures mount globally, said Minister-in-Charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran on Thursday evening.

Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister for Communications and Information, was speaking at the celebration of the first anniversary of the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA), which entered into force on Nov 21 last year.

Beside being a symbol of excellent bilateral relations, the EUSFTA "was and remains an important signal of our shared commitment to an open rules-based multilateral trading system", said Mr Iswaran.

"That our bilateral trade has held steady this year - despite severe economic and health challenges wrought by Covid-19 - is also noteworthy, and the EUSFTA certainly helped to cushion the impact."

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With like-minded partners, the EU and Singapore must keep a strong stance in favour of free trade and multilateralism at international bodies like the World Trade Organization, the G-20, Asean and Apec, he added.

Jointly organised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the European Union Delegation in Singapore, the hybrid event, "A Strong Partnership for a Resilient and Sustainable Recovery", was supported by Enterprise Singapore, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham).

Urging more companies to study and utilise the trade agreement, Mr Iswaran said: "The EUSFTA will provide certainty and predictability for companies, especially the smaller ones, as they navigate the current global economic slowdown and seek out new growth opportunities."

To help firms in this, an Administrative Arrangement on Cluster Cooperation was signed between Singapore and the European Commission at the event.

This provides a framework for facilitating cooperation and business activities between industry clusters in Singapore and the EU, including regular exchanges and business matchmaking events.

This will enable information exchanges and the joint exploration of business opportunities, in growth areas such as manufacturing, medical technology, food, lifestyle and consumer products, and sustainable urban solutions, said Mr Iswaran.

Valdis Dombrovskis, European Commission executive vice-president for an Economy that Works for People, said that that the arrangement "will lead to many practical initiatives to help our business community take advantage of the opportunity offered by the EUSFTA".

In a speech, Mr Dombrovskis pointed out: "What the world needs now is a sustainable economic recovery, and Europe and Singapore can help to lead the way."

The recovery should be strong, fair and inclusive, with a focus on greening the economy and embracing digitalisation, he added.

Beyond the EUSFTA, there is potential for deeper cooperation in the digital economy, said Mr Iswaran.

As traditional trade rules and policies are less suited for today's digital or digitally-enabled transactions, Singapore is working on a network of Digital Economy Agreements with like-minded partners.

Such agreements have been signed with Chile, New Zealand and Australia, and Singapore is in advanced discussions with South Korea, he added.

"We are also in dialogue with other partners, including the EU and EU member states, to explore various modalities of digital agreements and initiatives."

On Singapore's proposals for a digital agreement, Mr Dombrovskis said: "I am confident that we should be able to identify areas of mutual interest for cooperation."

At the event, the SBF and EuroCham also signed a memorandum of understanding to deepen collaboration in the areas of sustainability, digitalisation, internationalisation and corporate social responsibility.

Said SBF chief executive officer Ho Meng Kit: "We look forward to continuing our work with EuroCham to cascade the benefits of the agreement to Singapore businesses, particularly our small and medium enterprises (SMEs), by linking them up with European partners."

For instance, the SBF is working with EuroCham to bring European SMEs on board its GlobalConnect business-to-business platform, so that Singapore businesses can connect with buyers and suppliers in Europe.

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