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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, April 25) — Despite having virtually nothing to trade with European nations, a leader in the central Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands believes his country can gain from negotiations with the European Union to establish a free trade agreement with Pacific island nations.

Marshall Islands Minister of Resources and Development John Silk told Majuro’s Chamber of Commerce Thursday that a requirement for the EU in the talks is to help develop the ability of small nations to increase local products for trade.

"Our concern in the EU negotiations is that we have nothing to trade with the rest of the world," Silk said.

The talks that started late last year are focusing on two tracks: To develop a free trade relationship between the Pacific and Europe, and also to develop capacity in small islands for exports to take advantage of opening EU markets.

As part of an aid agreement reached in 2000 between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, a trade agreement is required. Talks started last year, and hopes are that an agreement will be concluded by 2007, although there is concern from many of the smaller nations who fear that the removal of import taxes — which account for a substantial portion of national budgets — will hurt their largely aid-dependent economies.

According to Silk, the Pacific’s joint strategy in the talks with the EU is focusing on the key areas of tourism, fisheries and investment, Silk said.

"The Marshall Islands government recognizes that development of the Marshall Islands requires development of the private sector," he said. "The Marshall Islands is committed to developing opportunities for Marshallese."

One aim of the current negotiations is to expand the supply of products and the capacity for export from island nations, he said.

The Marshall Islands exports fresh tuna to sashimi markets in Japan, has a very small black pearl industry, makes coconut oil soap and cosmetic products, and is beginning to produce larger quantities of the health juice known as noni‚ that is in high demand in Asian, European and American markets. But all of these remain minuscule by international standards.

Silk mentioned that currently, the Marshall Islands is negotiating with the EU about requirements for the export of fresh tuna fish from Majuro to European markets.

Majuro businesses have already obtained some technical assistance from the EU’s Center for the Development of Enterprise, and are looking at possible large scale funding for infrastructure development from the EU’s major investment bank.

April 25, 2005

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