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NZ’s Damien O’Connor: We want to build positive relationships into the Indo-Pacific

New Zealand’s Trade and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor is the first minister from his country to travel offshore since the COVID-19 outbreak. His chosen destinations included Paris, London, and Brussels. Robert Francis caught up with him at the conclusion of his trip.


The visit provided minister O’Connor with the opportunity to discuss progress with ministers and EU commissioners on ongoing free trade agreement negotiations with both the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Q: You have just had a whistle-stop tour of Paris, London, and Brussels. What impressions are you left with at the conclusion of your visit to Europe?

It’s been a very positive visit, and as the first minister for over 17 months to travel abroad, there’s been a lot of interest at home regarding the situation in the countries I’ve visited.

There is a huge challenge ahead of us, and I’m impressed by the way the countries in Europe are tackling this challenge, keeping their economies and employment going, facing up to the challenges of vaccination so that they are in a good position to ward off COVID-19 and its variants.

The chance to speak directly to ministers and commissioners is invaluable. We were able to commit and give momentum to talks with both the UK and the EU.

Q: How do you see the EU-New Zealand relationship evolving in the current context of US-China tensions, WTO stalemate, and Brexit?

New Zealand and Europe are natural partners for a number of reasons. We have similar values and aspirations around climate change, upholding human rights, ensuring multilateral trade agreements, and supporting work at the WTO, even on issues such as animal welfare.

We aspire to the same outcomes and feel confident that we can reach a conclusion.

Even as a small country, I like to think we can show leadership around big challenges like COVID-19, climate, and the value of multilateralism. An EU-New Zealand trade agreement would provide another level of engagement that we would welcome, and I’m sure this would provide an opportunity for the EU in the Indo-Pacific region.

Q: What sticking points remain when it comes to finalising an EU-New Zealand FTA?

Of course, there are still some sticking points in terms of aspirations. The EU’s offer on goods has underwhelmed us, and we’ve been clear that it should be more realistic and provide genuine opportunities into the future. The EU has offensive interests around GIs and investment – but the discussions we’ve had on both our areas of interest indicate we can get an agreement.

Now we need to give the negotiators the time and flexibility necessary to reach a point where both sides feel there is value in our relationship being formalised.

The EU is New Zealand’s third biggest trade partner, and the fact there is still no trade agreement is an anomaly.

Q: When do you realistically expect an EU-New Zealand FTA to be finalised?

We think we can make good progress this year. We hope to get a comprehensive goods offer from the EU before the summer break, but until we see such an offer it is difficult for us to move. After that, we can move quite quickly, and in any trade negotiations momentum always builds towards the end.

Q: Ratifying a trade deal in the EU is rarely a smooth process – EU agreements with Mercosur  and Canada spring to mind. What in your view needs to be done to ensure the smooth ratification of an EU-New Zealand FTA in both jurisdictions?

We want to build positive relationships into the Indo-Pacific which provides opportunities for the EU.

I’ve been in contact with agriculture and trade ministers across the EU, explained what we want to achieve, and reassured them that we neither can nor want to swamp their markets in sensitive areas of agriculture.

We also want to align on areas of climate change, high animal welfare standards, human rights, and show leadership when it comes to sustainable food production and trade in sustainable goods and services that will deliver a better outcome for us as trade partners, as well as the wider world.

Q: The UK and New Zealand are aiming to reach an agreement in principle in August. Do you sense more urgency on the UK side to get a deal over the line than is the case with the EU?

After the UK reached an agreement in principle with Australia, we are next in line. We supported their request to accede to the CTPP and want to utilise the momentum in the UK and move agreement along as quickly as possible.

Q: Australia has gained full duty-free access to the UK market for agricultural products after a 15-year phase in. Would you be happy with a deal like that for New Zealand?

We’ve always aspired to tariff-free access in every FTA we negotiate. We do not want to couple our negotiations with the EU to those with the UK, these are two separate agreements with different baskets of interests. We are focusing on reaching a commercially meaningful outcome that eliminates tariffs.

Q: New Zealand is currently very active at the WTO on sustainability issues – will this strategy continue for the foreseeable future?

Yes, absolutely. New Zealand has always promoted issues of sustainability, and we hope the WTO can make progress on fisheries subsidies by the end of July which is the agreed deadline. We’ve sought and made some progress on fossil fuel subsidies and have always sought the removal of agricultural subsidies that could be harmful to the environment.

To conclude, I found this a very useful visit, and New Zealand remains connected with two of our most important trading partners. It is worth the 14 days in isolation I will have to spend on my return!

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