Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you

I welcome you all to Fiji

Fellow Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

Firstly, I want to extend the sympathies of the Fijian Government, to all those citizens and residents of Solomon Islands who have suffered losses from the flash flooding that occurred last week.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Solomon Islands as they recover from this natural disaster.

Our gathering here over the next few days is critically important as our region is at a point where decisions need to be made with regards to our participation in the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union.

We need to make crucial decisions, as a single, unified grouping – decisions that will not only shape our immediate future but the long term development of our region.

Fellow Ministers, we are at a juncture where we need to ask the following pertinent questions.

Is it still in our interest to pursue a Comprehensive EPA?

If yes, do we go forward as a single region?

How can we achieve an EPA that benefits us all?

The only answer to that is to negotiate as a united, cohesive and effective Pacific ACP group.

We need no reminding that since the negotiations on the Comprehensive EPA began a decade ago, we, the Pacific ACP region, have been ignored by the EU for at least 25% of the time.

When negotiations resumed in 2012, the EU has failed in giving us an agreement better than the Interim EPA (as promised in 2007), but has made more demands, and pushing us to agree to what is on the table or go back to the Interim EPA. In this process, they have encouraged division in our region.

Fiji has always been a champion of regionalism and, amongst other things, this was the reason we continued negotiating the Comprehensive EPA with the rest of the region. We want only one EPA for the region, which will promote regional integration and not divide us.

Hence, some of you would remember that in Brussels in October 2013, we had agreed to have a meeting of the Pacific ACP Ministers, not to just go through the motions and approve the recommendations of our officials, but to take matters in our own hands and make many of the real decisions ourselves.

In order to have one EPA – and I know that is what we all want – we need to address Papua New Guinea’s participation in the negotiations. It is encouraging to note that PNG has agreed to come to the table as an observer.

We need to think beyond tomorrow, and the next 5 years or the next 20 years. We need to ensure that our future generations are secure. Hence, we cannot and will not let a trade agreement diminish our ability to deliver to our people basic socio-economic rights, which include the right to housing, education, health, food and the right to economic participation.

Therefore, there is only one option for the region. And that is to have one Economic Partnership Agreement that has a strong development aspect and that does not impinge on our sovereignty and policy space – WE WANT THE BEST EPA.

Therefore, we are at a stage in these negotiations where we need political will and decisions made at the highest level. The Pacific ACP Leaders have not met since November 2012.

The region’s Leaders have been left out of the major developments in the PACP region and the EPA negotiations.

We also believe that the Leaders need to meet to consider some of the fundamental issues, as to how we can take ownership of the EPA negotiations and its implementation after conclusion of negotiations.

Fiji will not be party to an Agreement that may provide us with short term market access, but have a long term negative impact on our development aspirations as a nation and our ability to have control over our resources and economies.

Fellow Ministers, it is up to us to set the direction of these negotiations – whether to continue and finalise then by May/June 2014 or suspend them, keeping in mind that a new European Parliament will be elected in May and a new Trade Commissioner will take office in September.

We have to decide the best option. We have to ask ourselves whether we are just going through the motions and will not achieve anything. We have to ask ourselves should we redirect our limited resources elsewhere.

Ministers, as I stated earlier, we want an EPA that is development oriented. Therefore, the Development Cooperation Chapter in the comprehensive EPA is a crucial element in any decision we make.

The EU has made the claim that it is the second largest donor in the Pacific and a substantial amount of that is Aid for Trade. The EU funding is naturally appreciated. However, compared to the aid for trade provided to the African and Caribbean states, there’s no question that the Pacific gets inadequate, if not, the smallest share.

We need to have in place mechanisms that involve us taking ownership. That is why the establishment of the Pacific Regional Trade and Development Facility is so critical. We do not want such things as the Investment Facility for the Pacific proposed by EU to make our mechanism irrelevant and deprive us of a precious resource. We should also question the method in which funds are diseminated. The IFP lacks governance and transparency. And the involvement of third parties and external agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, which the new EU facility proposes, limits the availability of funds to the region.

Fellow Minister, the EPA, as a trade agreement, has been burdened with non-trade concerns, which has caused further delays in its finalisation. Poorly conceived political provisions, that disadvantage the Pacific ACP, have been imposed on the region.

These provisions in the EPA are skewed in favour of the EU, who are the judge, jury and executioners in determining whether there is a violation of the political provisions and have the freedom to invoke illegal trade sanctions in response. There is no independent adjudication and the opinion of the Pacific ACP as contracting parties of the EPA does not matter in these provisions.

Fellow Ministers, these are some of the crucial issues that we have before us and we need to tackle them with resolve to achieve our vision of securing the best result for our region. Whilst there are time pressures imposed upon us, we need to ensure that we come out as winners for the sake of all our peoples.

The EPA is the first such agreement between the Pacific region and a developed trading bloc. We therefore need an agreement that is development friendly, provides opportunities for the region to integrate into global trade and does not limit our policy space and impinge on our sovereignty.

We need a well negotiated EPA that sets a precedent for all other trade agreements that are currently being negotiated or will be negotiated in the future, such as the PACER Plus with Australia and New Zealand.

I look forward to constructive deliberations over the next two days.

Once again welcome to Fiji. I hope you get to see some more of the country and please enjoy our famous Fijian hospitality.

Vinaka Vakalevu. Thank you.

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