Pacific ACP Trade Ministers gather in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, over the next two days to discuss a range of regional trade related issues. Their deliberations will form the basis for onward advice to Pacific ACP Leaders at their annual meeting in the Cook Islands later this month.

"Let us not forget the very reason why we seek increased trade in our countries - it is because of the trade and development nexus," said the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, at the opening of the meeting.

"Trade assists in the development of our economies and in so doing, contributes to the reduction of poverty. Given the small size of many of our economies, we need to continuously seek markets within and beyond the region to increase trade."

Two main trade arrangements, the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union will be a core part of Ministers' discussions.

PICTA Protocol
"I am very pleased to report that a milestone has been achieved," said Secretary General Slade, announcing that the negotiations of the PICTA trade in services arrangement had concluded.

"Ministers will be requested to initial the PICTA Protocol for trade in services and recommend that Forum Island Country Leaders sign the Protocol at their upcoming meeting in Rarotonga.

"This arrangement is a crucial step in strengthening our regional economy with trade in services playing an increasingly significant role in each of our economies. As we deepen integration among the Pacific economies, we must take advantage of other opportunities available to us."

Pacific ACP Countries launched the EPA negotiations with the EU in 2004.

"We did so with high expectations that the EPA would be an instrument for development and as such, this development dimension would be reflected in all areas of the negotiations," said Mr Slade.

"We believe that the EPA must take into account the specific, special economic, social, environmental and structural constraints of the Pacific ACP States, as well as their capacity to adapt their economies to increased trade with the European Union. We have strived to negotiate an EPA that is economically meaningful, politically sustainable and socially acceptable."

Mr Slade added that the fisheries chapter is a key component of the EPA negotiations which Ministers need to consider, with the aim of ensuring that we secure global sourcing rules of origin for fresh, chilled and frozen fish.

In the decade since the EU and the five ACP regions launched their negotiations, the only region that has concluded negotiations on a comprehensive EPA is the Caribbean. The African and Pacific regions are still negotiating a comprehensive EPA with the European Union.

"The Pacific ACP region, assisted by the Forum Secretariat, has undertaken a significant amount of work to progress the EPA negotiations," said Secretary General Slade, adding that a large amount of financial resources and time have been spent in an endeavour to prepare for and conclude the negotiations.

Mr Slade welcomed progress made by countries in finalising their draft market access offers. Two additional countries - Solomon Islands and the Republic of Marshall Islands - have indicated that they are ready to submit their offers to the EC. This will bring the total to 12 Pacific ACP States that have submitted their offers to the EU.

"This is a significant undertaking and is of strategic importance in progressing the negotiations," he said.

"The next negotiating session with the EU, planned for October, will be THE critical negotiating session that will determine whether the region will be able to conclude the negotiations this year, or even in the near future," added Mr Slade.

"We must therefore, as PACP Leaders have directed, remain committed to negotiate the comprehensive EPA as a single region. We must also impress on Europe the importance of refocusing the EPA negotiations on the development dimension taking into account the special circumstances of the Pacific ACP Countries."

Ministers will also consider the way forward for the Pacific Aid for Trade Strategy and the Pacific Trade and Development Facility.

The Pacific ACP Ministers Meeting is being held at the Fa'onelua Convention Centre in Nuku'alofa from 16th-17th August.