PM Lee Hsien Loong: EU-Asean trade pact would deepen ties

Mr Lee being interviewed yesterday by Singapore reporters in Mongolia. He was in the country for a four-day official visit and met European leaders during the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting Summit.
Mr Lee being interviewed yesterday by Singapore reporters in Mongolia. He was in the country for a four-day official visit and met European leaders during the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting Summit.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

He hopes recent EU-S'pore FTA will be building block for wider pact with Asean

Europe and Asia ought to deepen ties, and a practical way to do so is through a European Union-Asean free trade agreement (FTA), said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Such a pact would enhance trade and people-to-people ties between the two continents, but will take some time given the EU has 28 members - 27 if Britain leaves - and Asean has 10 members, he noted.

But it can be worked on, Mr Lee said in an interview with Singapore reporters at the end of a four-day official visit to Mongolia where he attended the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) Summit.

And he hoped Singapore's recently concluded FTA with the EU would be a building block for one between Asean and the EU.

"We always think if Singapore goes first, others will be watching and may look at it afresh," he said.

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Brexit or no Brexit, Europe and Asia ought to deepen their ties. When you talk about connectivity, it's not just aeroplane flights or fibre optic cables; you must have the trade and the people connections.

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on EU-Asean ties.

"I hope that has some influence on Asean getting started again."

The EU-Singapore FTA will see the elimination of tariffs on imports from Singapore over five years, and was to have come into force last year. But its ratification was delayed after the European Commission sought a European Court of Justice opinion on its competence to sign off on trade pacts.

Depending on the ruling, the FTA may come into force sooner, or may entail a longer process , said Mr Lee.

"But one way or another, this is something which both sides want, and we hope we can bring about within a reasonable time," he said.

Mr Lee met European Council and European Commission leaders attending the summit on Friday, and both sides agreed the Singapore-EU FTA would help strengthen ties between Singapore and EU members.

At the summit, Mr Lee also spoke of his hope for Singapore to be part of an inter-regional trade agreement between Europe and Asia.

The EU and Asean had also started free trade talks in 2007, but suspended them two years later.

Asked how Britain's recent vote to leave the EU could affect any potential future talks, Mr Lee said: "Brexit or no Brexit, Europe and Asia ought to deepen their ties. When you talk about connectivity, it's not just aeroplane flights or fibre optic cables; you must have the trade and the people connections."

But he acknowledged that any negotiations on an Asean-EU FTA would take time, as it would involve the multiple member countries of the EU and Asean.

The EU was Singapore's third-largest global trading partner in 2014, with bilateral trade at $96 billion.

Mr Lee was also asked for his views on his first official visit to Mongolia, where he met Prime Minister Jargaltulga Erdenebat and President Tsakhia Elbegdorj.

He noted that Mongolia had "an ancient past and a glorious history", but was also focused on developing and moving into the future.

Mr Lee also said Mongolia and Singapore are both countries with big neighbours, and both are reaching out to the rest of the world.

"They would like to make friends with countries beyond, including Singapore," he said. "I think there's a certain commonality of spirit there."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'PM: EU-Asean trade pact would deepen ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe