The European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) will be particularly helpful to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran said at a business reception in Brussels on Monday (Sept 9).
Large firms "find their own way around the world", but small firms need help to navigate new markets and gain access to them, he said.
In addition to the early implementation of the EUSFTA, the European Services Forum (ESF) hopes to see promotion of the agreement to the corporate communities on both sides, particularly to SMEs which may not be aware of its benefits, ESF chairman Noel Clehane told The Business Times. The ESF is a network of representatives from the sector that promotes liberalisation of trade and investment in services.
As global head of regulatory and public policy at professional services firm BDO Global, which has offices in all 10 Asean countries, Mr Clehane named EUSFTA benefits such as improved market access for a range of services, and the facilitation of mobility for professionals between the EU and Singapore, which will help with staff secondment and transfers.
Mr Iswaran, who is in Brussels to meet EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström and EU businesses, was speaking at a reception following the official launch of the European Union-Singapore Business Roundtable on Monday evening.
"We hope this will be the start of a whole series," said Markus Beyrer, director general of roundtable co-organiser BusinessEurope. With the EUSFTA "very close to the finish line", the hope is still for the final ratification process to be completed this year, he added.
While agreements between countries are important to shape the overall architecture of their relations, "it is really the businesses that enliven these agreements", said Mr Iswaran.
With the EUSFTA seen as a pathway to a future EU-Asean agreement, he highlighted that Asean's rising middle class is demanding goods and services of a higher quality, from education and healthcare to consumer goods, "which actually plays to the strengths of Europe".
At the roundtable, attended by about 30 business representatives, Mr Iswaran appealed to business communities to raise issues of cross-border digital agreements with their respective governments.
Agreements such as the EUSFTA deal in the movement of goods and services in a traditional sense, but firms today deal in the digital movement of data too, he said: "So we should really be working on digital economy initiatives." These could include rules governing the movement of data across borders, or those around cross-border e-payments.
At the event - held at Scotland House, the Scottish government's base in Brussels - Mr Iswaran also met with Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation Ivan McKee. Mr McKee noted the long history of ties between both countries, from the first Resident of Singapore William Farquhar, to the fact that Singapore is now the third-largest export market for Scotch whisky.
Ulrich Adam, director general of trade association spiritsEUROPE, noted that Europe's spirit exports to Singapore have grown 90 per cent over the last decade. As a major distribution hub in Asia, Singapore is the second-largest export market for European spirits, after the United States.
The EUSFTA will benefit the industry with its high levels of protection for geographical indications - for territory-specific spirits such as cognac and Scotch whisky - as well as providing a platform for increased regulatory cooperation between governments and business, he added.