Honorable Ministers,


Your Excellencies,


Director Political Affairs, Ms Barbara Age,


Senior Representatives,


Ladies and Gentlemen


BulaVinaka and a very good morning to you.


Today marks the inaugural Trade Ministers Meeting for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). On behalf of the Government and the Fijian people, I would like to welcome you to Fiji and say that we are very proud to host the first of what I hope will be many such gatherings.


Ladies and Gentlemen, this meeting comes at the end of a very eventful period for the region.


Two weeks ago, we hosted a meeting of MSG Trade Officials. Then, Fiji hosted a meeting of eminent persons of the G77, and we were gratified to see that the Pacific Island nations were well represented at this gathering. And finally last week, Pacific ACP Trade Officials and Trade Ministers were in Fiji for a series of meetings.


There is much to report, and I am pleased to note there will be a session today to update this forum on the outcomes of these meetings. As MSG states, we are part of the larger region, and the decisions made – in particular at the PACP Trade Ministers Meeting last week – haveeither a direct or indirect impact on our sub-region.


For example,much progress was made pertaining to trade between Pacific Island Nations as well as with partners such as the European Union, China and United States. And perhaps most importantly, we established a clear mandate for our officials as they look to conclude negotiations for a comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU in June.


Honourable Ministers,


Over its 25-year history, the Melanesian Spearhead Group has become a strong and cohesive regional bloc. And now, the MSG is also becoming a vibrant economic grouping, with great potential. In fact, I would say that MSG solidarity has never been stronger.


Together, we represent 98.8% of the region’s total landmass, 30.3% of the region’s exclusive economic zones,and 87% of the region’spopulation.We have advancedskills and knowledge as well as a strong manufacturing base.It is up to us to make sure we make the most of these resources.


In Fiji, we believe that trade and economic cooperation form the foundation for prosperity and growth in the region. In fact, a hugely successful Fijian Trade and Investment Mission has just returned from Papua New Guinea. The overwhelming positive feedback has convinced us that many other exciting opportunities remain untapped within the MSG region.


Historically, intra-MSG trade has been low. However, we have seen remarkable signs of progress over the last few years. It has been noted that between the period 2005-2009, intra-MSG trade has increased substantially – with exports amongst the MSG rising by more than 300%.


Fiji’s total trade with the Pacific Islands countries has increased from less than 1% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2010. More than 40% of this trade is now with the MSG countries. In 2012, Fiji-PNG trade alone was more than $23 million.


Further boost in intra-MSG trade is expected in 2013 and 2014, with the removal of tariff barriers by PNG last year and all of Vanuatu’s tariffs being reduced to zero this year.


All told, we project significant growth in intra-MSG trade in 2013 and 2014.


But this is not just about trade for trade’s sake, as you are all aware, honourable ministers. We share a bold vision for a truly integrated Pacific, beginning with a truly integrated MSG.


The vision is for a ‘common economic union’ and a‘single common market’ with the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital. Ladies and gentlemen, if we are willing to work together, this is the future.


We have already made much progress in this direction. The MSG Skills Movement Scheme will provide for the free movement of skilled personnel within the region.


On top of this, in February last year, the Fijian Government approved the waiver of all immigration fees to facilitate the inward movement of persons under the MSG Skills Movement Scheme.  And PNG, in March, announced the removal of pre-entry visa requirements for Fijians wanting to visit PNG for business or holiday.


These are all positive developments that will lead directly to closer regional integration. But perhaps the most important issue for our sub-region is the MSG Trade Agreement.


Although the Agreement has already become an effective tool that is enhancing MSG trade, we must not loose sight of our goal: common market and economic union.


The support and commitment of each member state is needed to make this happen.


Therefore, one of the main tasks of this new forum will be to review the MSG Trade Agreement. We must ensure that the new trade agreement builds on our achievements, and that is does not nullify the substantial progress that we have madeas a sub-regional group.


Honourable Ministers,


We need to ask ourselves, “As Trade Ministers, what role do we play?”


“Where do we see the MSG in five years time? In ten years time? In twenty-five years time?”


“What more can we do to further enhance trade and economic cooperation in our region?”


“What are our next steps?”


These are the questions that I urge each of you to consider as we begin our discussions today.


On a final note, I would also like to add that as Trade Ministers we have an important role to play in providing guidance to our officials and advise to our Leaders, and it is therefore important that the MSG Trade Ministers Forum be institutionalized in the MSG Constitution.


As a sub-region and as a bloc, we are clearly on the right path. As I mentioned before, I believe that MSG solidarity has never been stronger, and with new channels of dialogue, such is this forum, I am confident that together we will pave the way forward for the future of the MSG.


I look forward to your contribution and support during our meeting.


Vinaka Vakalevu. Thank you.

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