Open government and accessibility to the country's decision-makers impresses.
Michalis Rokas - European Union Charge d'Affaires talks to political editor Audrey Young.
Can you give a brief run-down of your career?
I joined the European Commission external relations in 1994. I joined as a Maghreb desk officer. Then I was posted to Hong Kong as No2 of the EU office there. Then I was back in headquarters as deputy of the China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Mongolia division for almost six years before I came early last year to New Zealand.
What are the issues between New Zealand and the EU?
We have a very comprehensive agenda. We are negotiating what we call a framework agreement, which is a political agreement which will encompass the breadth and depth of the relationship. We will look to intensify dialogue in all areas, agriculture, education, people to people. We have our regular dialogues on trade, agriculture, science and technology, and on the Pacific in trilateral forum together with Australia, with big events coming like the Pacific Islands Forum and the Small Island Developing States UN conference in Apia, Samoa, in September.
What are your goals for 2014?
The goal is to have the voice of the EU heard better in New Zealand because we always sense that what is reported about the EU comes most of the time directly from the English press, which does not necessarily give a deep understanding of how the EU operates.
Did you start out in the Greek diplomatic corp?
No. I started directly on January 1, 1994, after I did post-graduate studies at the Free University of Brussels on the European economy. I found a job as an assistant to a member of the European Parliament and then I passed what we call the concours, a competition among all EU member states at the time, to get into EU institutions.
How many were in the competition for how many places?
60,000 people for 250 places.
You must have felt like you'd won Lotto.
Yes, but you had to prepare. I had done a couple of those and I failed because I didn't prepare enough. If you were methodical, then it was possible.
Advice for Kiwis visiting Europe?
I think with the enlargement [of the EU to 28 countries] there are many, many new countries to discover, especially the former central-eastern Europe where we have a lot of Unesco world heritage parks. I think Europe is a good place, like here in New Zealand, to get somewhere and drive.
Have you drawn any conclusions about the New Zealand character since you've been here?
It's an extremely open society. It's a fantastic county to be welcomed. You have to even get used to how easy things are, how people are accessible, nice, polite. For a diplomat and newcomer that makes life much easier. This genuine openness to discuss is very pleasant. The fact that officials up to the level of ministers are so easy to pass a message, are accessible, talk to them, organise a meeting. The fact that we have no trade irritants any more has helped a lot. Talking about New Zealanders, I only have positive things in mind.
Have you been to all of the 28 countries in the EU?
I have been to all except Bulgaria.
Do you have a career highlight?
Once, with the agreement of the Chinese Government, I led a fact-finding mission to Tibet for the EU which was after the Lhasa riots in 2008. We spent an extraordinary 10 days in Tibet and seeing the huge challenges that Tibetans face there. That is something I will never forget in my career. I have been quite privileged in dealing with China. It has been one of the most fascinating jobs I've done. Another highlight was negotiating with the Chinese - I participated in 10 human rights dialogues - an extraordinary exercise of trying to understand your Chinese counterparts, trying to engage, trying to be constructive.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to become a diplomat?
At school they have to be very strong in modern history and geography. Once he or she joins the service it is absolutely necessary to invest a lot of time in understanding the culture and the things you need to respect in a country. Maybe another piece of advice would be to learn negotiation techniques and always, when you negotiate, to respect the other side's view.
What do you mean by that?
You saw during the crisis there was a lot of negative talk about Europe but then you see the response. During the crisis the Euro member went from 16 to 17 and now 18 with Lithuania joining on January 1. Also Croatia joined the EU on July 1 so during the crisis we got a new member state with others knocking on the door. It is very interesting for New Zealanders to see a continuous process. After the wars and the Yugoslav war which was a shocker never was it thought that in the heart of Europe we would see terrible war again in the 90s all of that was a wake-up call and the solution was not disintegration but more Europe. In two years in New Zealand I haven't a protest or a day strike. In Europe now it's a hard time. So [for Kiwis in Europe] take some time not only to look at culture, food and the beauties of Europe but look a little bit at the process of integration.
On that I think New Zealand is a little bit short-sighted because it gets its information from the English press, which is deeply Euro-sceptic. So maybe a good about European integration wouldn't be a bad thing to read in advance.