Cabinet Members;
The Head of the European Union Delegation for the Pacific, Ambassador Julian Wilson;
Delegates of the European Union;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

I’m delighted to be here this morning at this Third Fiji-European Union Enhanced Political Dialogue as this event returns to Suva following our second dialogue in Brussels in 2016.

As you know, this year’s dialogue was initially scheduled for 2017, but that was quite a busy year for us, as we hosted the first-ever UN Conference on Oceans last June and presided over the COP23 negotiations this past November. So we appreciate that we’ve been able to move this important event into 2018. And, on behalf of every Fijian, allow me to welcome you all to Fiji, especially those who are here for the first time, and we very much hope that you enjoy your time here with us.

We in Fiji are proud of every relationship we share with the member countries of the European Union; relationships that have transformed the lives of Fijians and Europeans alike. And we recognise this event as a powerful tool in strengthening those relationships, and in finding new ways we can make life better for people here in Fiji, in the EU, and everywhere around the world.

We have a number of cooperative agreements in place with the EU, along with other bilateral arrangements with its member states. Taken together, those arrangements impact nearly every aspect of our national development. On top of that, thousands of Europeans visit Fiji every year and many of our sporting stars compete in European countries. Fiji and the EU, together, have made the world a safer place, through UN Peacekeeping, cooperation in combatting cybercrime and thwarting transnational criminals, and on many of the great issues of our time, Fiji and the EU member countries have spoken together, with one voice, to rally the world to action.

So while we may be on opposite ends of the globe, we share profound and impactful friendships. And already in 2018, we’ve taken those relationships to new levels.

Earlier in the year, we appointed two Honourary Consuls in Estonia and the Netherlands, and we are looking to expand our diplomatic presence in other Member States. Just this month, here in Fiji, we hosted the first-ever Franco-Fiji Business Dialogue. And on the global stage, Germany not only played host to the COP23 negotiations in Bonn, Germany, but they, along with all of the EU, have been hugely supportive of our COP23 Presidency and our critical campaign to fully implement the Paris Agreement and raise the ambition of the Nationally Determined Contributions. We also enjoyed the support of the EU in our co-hosting of the UN Conference on Oceans, alongside the Government of Sweden, in New York last year.

This year’s political dialogue is particularly important, as it will lay the groundwork for our Ministerial meeting in Togo later this month. There, we will propose a new arrangement between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, and Fiji is a proud founding member of the ACP Group.

In the upcoming negotiations, Fiji will be pushing for an even greater focus on sustainable, resilient development, and space for accommodating developing and climate-vulnerable small island states, increasing regional trade and integration, and making development financing more accessible.
The Fijian economy is on track to record its ninth straight year of economic growth, the longest sustained period of growth in our post-independence history. On the back of our economic success, we’ve increased disposable income and our foreign reserves; we’ve grown tax revenue while also making our tax regime fairer, more transparent and more efficient; and we’ve welcomed stronger and increasing business activity that has dropped unemployment in Fiji to the lowest rate recorded in 20 years. We are also very proud that even as we’ve invested heavily in infrastructure and capital development, even as we’ve adapted our climate-vulnerable economy, even as we’ve expanded the safety net of social welfare in Fijian society, and even as we’ve come to the immediate aid of Fijians impacted by severe weather, we’ve actually seen a sharp decrease in our debt to GDP ratio.

I’ve said it many times before, it takes more than luck and good fortune to grow an economy and then keep it growing year after year. It takes vision, it takes sound financial management, and it takes unrelenting political will. Particularly for a developing nation like Fiji, which is removed from large markets, we need to be innovative in how we pursue development. We need to think outside of the box, and find ways to attract new business and industries and incentivise investment into our country. And we’ve put in place a wide range of tax incentives and economic policies that have positioned our economy to welcome new industries and generate new sources of economic activity.

However, as we’ve seen, all this development can be wiped out by one single climactic event as seen in Cyclone Winston, where one third of the value of our GDP was wiped out within 48 hours. So, despite our strong economic growth, we are still vulnerable and fragile because we are not close to large markets, are comparatively isolated, do not have the economies of scale to attract large private sector investment and are vulnerable to increased climactic events. Therefore, we as a nation need to provide innovative financial and economic initiatives to attract investment, to give jobs and sustained livelihoods to our people. . We need to provide education; and we have to give our people access to basic utilities such as water, electricity and transportation.

We must fulfil not only the civil and political rights, but also the economic, social and cultural rights of our people. Our development partners need to also understand this and give us the assistance and, at the very least, the space to do so.

Despite the challenges, we must continue to strengthen the traditional pillars of our economy which includes modernising our sugar cane industry, an industry that supports the economic well-being of over 200,000 Fijians.

Last year saw the expiration of EU production quotas, leading to an increase in EU sugar production and a decline of sugar prices. Since then, we have been working with buyers to secure new markets for Fijian sugar, securing a profitable future for the industry. And I hope that the EU will work to maintain the stability of their sugar market to keep suppliers on an equal playing field.

Of course, we are deeply appreciative of the financial assistance granted by the EU in assisting my Government in making the Fijian sugar cane industry more competitive and giving our cane farmers easier access to sugar mills through the upgrading of cane roads. But given there is nearly 30 million dollars in assistance that remains undisbursed, we are hoping to see those funds released throughout this year. Our cane farmers are very hard-working people, and I, along with every one of them, are keen to see those funds put to good use as quickly as possible.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our economic success is also owed, in a very big way, to the health of our democracy and the strength of the Fijian Constitution, which have empowered our people and unleashed our national potential. And four years on from our first genuine parliamentary election, the Fijian people have seen for themselves the strength of our democracy, the fierce independence of our institutions, and they’ve seen that their voices and their votes – for the first time – matter equally in Fijian society.

Fiji has already ratified five of the nine major human rights conventions, and we’ve secured parliamentary approval for the ratification of another two of the instruments just last week, setting the stage for the ratification of seven this year, with further plans to secure approval for the remaining two conventions in 2018.

This year, we also will be holding our second general elections. And, as was the case in 2014, those elections will be conducted by the independent Electoral Commission and the Fijian Elections Office with its mandate to ensure that the outcome will reflect the will of the Fijian people.

As a democracy, and as an equal partner to our friends in the EU, it is unfortunate that we still find ourselves discussing the issuances of visas for Fijians travelling to EU member countries. Three years ago, we raised this issue with the EU, yet today we can’t report that any progress has been made. In fact, I believe we are only one of two Pacific island countries whose citizens are not granted visas on arrival throughout the EU.

The strength of any serious partnership is built on a foundation of fairness, dignity and equality. So, again, we ask that this dialogue advance the issue of visa issuance for the Fijian people.

So, needless to say, there are a lot of opportunities to make our partnership stronger and more effective. What is also quite clear is that this year, yet again, will be a busy one for Fiji.

We still hold our Presidency of COP 23, following the successful negotiations in Bonn last year. I was just in Bonn again this month for another series of climate meetings where we continued our campaign to complete the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement, and worked to ensure that the Talanoa Dialogue leads to more ambition in our climate action plans. And we are steadily preparing for our handover of the Presidency to Poland, in December of this year, at COP24, where the Talanoa Dialogue will be a centrepiece. Not only that, but Talanoa dialogues will soon be taking places in nations around the world, including within the EU.

Our COP 23 Presidency is one of those great examples that shows how the friendships in this room can change the lives of every person on earth for the better. When we work together, we can achieve tremendous good for our peoples and for our planet. And regardless of the challenges we have yet to face, I know we can all agree that the best course of action will always be Fiji and the European Union working together for the good of our nations and for the good of every global citizen.

I very much look forward to the outcomes of this discussion.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.