Combating Covid-19 and enhancing trade, investment EU's top priority

KUALA LUMPUR: Like everyone else, tackling the Covid-19 pandemic via vaccine cooperation is top on the agenda of the European Union (EU).

However, the EU is also mindful of assisting Malaysia on improving the latter's trade and investment ties, removing misunderstandings and enhancing cooperation concerning palm oil, and creating new partnerships on climate change, defence and security matters.

Newly appointed EU ambassador to Malaysia Michalis Rokas told the New Straits Times that he was determined to use his tenure here to deepen and enhance the EU-Malaysia partnership in the above areas.

"Covid-19 is the immediate problem facing all of us. It does not distinguish between nationality, race, religion, status in life, age, gender or anything else.

"It can hit any one and all of us. The pandemic demonstrates every day how connected and dependent we are on each other.

"It is a challenge for all of humanity and the more we work together, the faster the progress," he said.

Rokas stressed the important role Malaysia plays in supplying personal protective equipment like gloves and masks to the EU and elsewhere.

Likewise, he said, Malaysia needed vaccines from abroad.

"Hence, we need multilateralism to fight this virus with a firm commitment from the World Health Organisation. Through the Team Europe Initiative we have made RM3.92 billion available to help Asean nations fight Covid-19.

"This includes RM98 million for WHO in Southeast Asia to strengthen health system capacities," Rokas said.

He added that the EU further provided RM4.182 billion in grants and loans to support the Covax vaccine facility, through which Malaysia would secure vaccines for approximately 10 per cent of its population.

"Team Europe has provided 49 per cent of Covax funding, more than the total pledges of all East Asia Summit members combined.

"Once the facility is fully funded, it can secure 1.3 billion vaccine doses by the end of this year and three billion by the end of 2022," Rokas revealed, adding that it is in part because of the EU's enormous support of the global vaccine effort that the world has several high quality Covid-19 vaccines in less than a year.

This, he said, came through a RM13 billion EU budget for the rapid development and production of vaccines.

"The EU has put in place a transparency mechanism, to ensure that manufacturers honour their vaccine contracts.

"This will not impact vaccines bought under Covax, including the ones that Malaysia has purchased.

"The EU is very mindful of Advanced Purchase Authorisations (APAs) contracted by Malaysia outside the facility and will endeavour to ensure that Malaysia's expectations are met.

"We have made a call on all companies with APAs manufacturing in the EU to honour their obligations to deliver on their commitments," he said.

On trade and investment, Rokas said that the Joint Working Group on Palm Oil met on Jan 27 for the first time. The virtual meeting was attended by EU and relevant Asean member state representatives, including Malaysian.

The focus of the discussion, he said, was on advancing mutual cooperation to secure sustainability in the palm oil industry, especially for small holders.

"This is a step in the right direction and it places the 'UN Sustainable Development Goals' at the heart of the process. Both the EU and Malaysia have an interest in creating a shared and sustainable future for the industry.

"The EU welcomes Malaysia's request for consultation with the World Trade Organisation as a commitment to multilateralism and an opportunity to agree on the facts," he said.

Rokas added that EU respected that palm oil was a crucial part of the Malaysian economy and they needed to fight misconceptions.

"Let me be clear, there is not nor has there ever been any EU ban on palm oil. Europe is Malaysia's third most important market for palm oil," he said.

According to International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, Malaysian exports of palm oil and palm oil-based agriculture products to the EU increased by 36.4 per cent from last year, to RM7.11 billion.

Palm oil is a staple food in Europe and a major ingredient in EU's industrial production, said Rokas.

"It is essential that palm oil is produced sustainably with respect for nature and for the people on plantations and in factories.

"European consumers are very aware of these issues and will vote with their wallets if there are concerns about environmental and social sustainability," he said.

Rokas added that he was alarmed to see the recent floods had cost lives, damaged property and essential infrastructure which risked the oil palm harvest in Sabah, Sarawak and elsewhere.

He revealed that the EU had provided almost RM300,000 in humanitarian aid to assist in the floods.

"Whether we are European or Asian, we cannot escape the realities of nature. Climate change is causing more extreme weather events and Covid-19 has shown us how deadly nature can become.

"Europeans no longer accept a reality in which this continues to happen, without regard to climate change, the risk of future pandemics or food security," he said.

He added that under the "European Green Deal", the EU was committed to becoming climate neutral by 2050, including reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It was also a smart economic and industrial policy for the 21st century.

"Our future will either be green, or very difficult. One of my main goals as the EU ambassador is to work with Malaysians as partners in this global effort, to support one another on our climate goals," he said.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us, Rokas hopes to work on economic recovery, including the resumption of Free Trade Agreement negotiations when the time is right.

He is also looking forward to the European Investment Bank in Malaysia, financing investments for the green transition.

On deepening the EU-Malaysia partnership towards a strategic level, Rokas is focusing on cooperation on climate initiatives, sustainable trade growth, the welfare of indigenous people, gender equality, labour rights and the like.

"Every year we fund Malaysian students and academics to study and work in European universities through the Erasmus+ programme," he added.

"I believe that our relationship, even if longstanding, is only at the beginning.

"There is enormous untapped potential. I hope that 2021 can transform into a year for progress and enhancement.

"We want to partner with Malaysia on connectivity, creating better infrastructure to link our two regions, and on personal connections through our people and students," he said.

On Malaysia's Defence 'White Paper', he said EU shared many objectives from maritime and cyber security to counter terrorism.

"The EU is ready to increase our security cooperation in Malaysia, where we have already been providing support on counter terrorism and through the 'EU Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence'."

Source: New Straits Times

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