PM Lee, Germany's Merkel urge EU members to move fast to ratify FTA with Singapore

German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shake hands at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin on Feb 3 2015. They are flanked by the two winning entries of the Buddy Bear Design competition organised by the Singapore Emb
German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shake hands at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin on Feb 3 2015. They are flanked by the two winning entries of the Buddy Bear Design competition organised by the Singapore Embassy in Berlin last year. -- PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

BERLIN - Singapore and Germany urged European Union (EU) members to ratify the EU-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA) expeditiously, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying it was in Europe's interest to do so quickly.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the trade pact, negotiations for which ended last October, still had to be voted on in the European Parliament and ratified by EU member-states.

The FTA text was undergoing "legal scrubbing", in particular over dispute-settlement with investor states.

"These things may take some time, so I'm not absolutely confident that the process can be done this year. But of course, if it can be done within 2015, we would be very happy," he said at a press conference in Berlin with Dr Merkel on Tuesday, on the third of his four-day visit to Germany.

Dr Merkel said ratification should not take too long: "Such agreements also have a certain shelf-life, and the world is changing constantly."

Mr Lee received a ceremonial welcome at the Chancellery from Dr Merkel, who also hosted him to lunch. They posed beside 2m tall "Buddy Bears" designed to symbolise bilateral friendship. The bear is the symbol of Berlin.

The visit marks the 50th anniversary of Singapore's diplomatic relations with Germany, and the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany.

Germany is Singapore's largest EU trading partner, and Singapore - where over 1,400 German companies are based - is Germany's largest trading partner in Asean.

Dr Merkel described Singapore as a valued partner in research, education and Asian matters. She said it is also a central location for the German business community in Asia and cited the high degree of legal certainty that Singapore provides to businesses.

Dr Merkel also called on Singapore and Germany to seize the momentum to boost ties.

She said that as a major exporter to the Asia-Pacific where many countries were concluding similar free trade agreements, Germany had every interest in concluding the EU-Singapore FTA ratification quickly, "and we Germans will work for this".

Both leaders also talked about the euro zone's woes, and how globalisation and economic uncertainties generated new opportunities - but also worries and anxieties.

Mr Lee cited, in particular, ageing populations, low birth rates and integration into the global economy.

He also said that the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group was a threat to both countries and others, but noted there was quiet cooperation between security agencies to exchange information and minimise the risks.

Dr Merkel said science and research was important in making business more efficient and competitive, and added that it was no coincidence that Mr Lee took an interest in Germany's vocational education. "It will only complement efforts to create skilled jobs, and for this, a good education system is of the essence," she said.

Asked about Ukraine, parts of which were annexed by Russia, Mr Lee said Singapore was clear that countries cannot annex pieces of others, and had to honour international agreements.

The issue had to be resolved in line with international law and maintain the integrity of national borders, he added.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also called on Mr Lee on Tuesday, and discussed a wide range of issues, including the ISIS threat and the situation in Ukraine.

zakirh@sph.com.sg