Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Hon William Haomae, was selected as interim spokesman for the Pacific ACP group in negotiating the controversial Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Commission (EC).

The EPA, a free-trade agreement between the 27 countries of the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of 79 developing countries, has been under negotiation since 2002.

Papua New Guinea and Fiji signed temporary deals at the end of 2007 to safeguard their exports to Europe, but negotiations have continued through 2008, with Pacific trade officials travelling to the EC in Brussels again in September.

Mr Haomae has been asked to temporarily replace Associate Minister Hans Joachim Keil of Samoa.

Mr Haomae is already lead spokesman for the planned negotiation of a free-trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand, a process known as 'PACER Plus'.

Both agreements were the subject of extensive discussion at the PACP Trade Ministers Meeting in Nadi on 20th and 21st of October.

Mr Haomae told the meeting that it would be necessary to set up a new regional office to coordinate the negotiation, and to provide technical advice before formal negotiations could begin.

When negotiation of the EPA began, the EC provided substantial finance to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to help to coordinate the Pacific countries' negotiations, but so far Australia and New Zealand have made no commitment to offer similar assistance.

"We must make this issue our first priority - the issue that needs to be resolved before other issues can be seriously considered," he told the meeting.

The next meeting between Pacific officials and their Australian and New Zealand counterparts on the issue will take place in Tonga next month.

Press Release (Government Communication Unit)