Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

New PM Bill English heads for Europe

English's talks at the EU are expected to be on progress toward a free trade agreement with the EU. Photo / Marty Melville
English's talks at the EU are expected to be on progress toward a free trade agreement with the EU. Photo / Marty Melville

Prime Minister Bill English's first international trip in the role comes at a critical time for New Zealand's relations with Europe but he does not believe the leadership change from John Key will imperil that.

English leaves today for a trip to Brussels, London and Berlin - his first trip since former PM John Key stood down last December. In his eight years as PM, Key had built strong relations with many of the leaders English will now be meeting.

English will be the beneficiary of that - but was aware of the need not to lose momentum.

In Brussels English will meet the three 'Presidents' at the European Union - European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

English's talks at the EU are expected to be on progress toward a free trade agreement with the EU.

However, it is inevitable there will be discussion on Brexit as the UK prepares to trigger its exit in March and on what the election of Donald Trump as US President will mean for the EU.

"There's just so much going on in Europe and the UK that is going to affect us over the next five or ten years, so it's an opportunity to pick up the personal relationships that the previous Prime Minister had with the leaders and talk to a whole range of people about our trade, security and historical interests with them."

English said Key had not given him any particular hints on how to handle the leaders he would be meeting. "But he's certainly spoken to me about these leaders in the past because he met most of them, and about what it's like from his regular trips to Europe and the UK."

English will also have talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May - whom Key had only met once since she took over from David Cameron as PM following the Brexit vote - and German's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

English said he wanted to get their view on wider international events. "They will be as concerned about the direction of US policy, the activities of Russia, and our common interests around terrorism and security."

David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, says the handover to English would not have much impact on progress, saying English had met leaders such as Merkel in the past and as a long standing deputy PM and finance minister was a known quantity and well respected in his own right.

The terrorist attacks in Europe over the past year, including in Brussels and more recently Berlin will also come up.

English said there were elections looming in France, Holland and Germany and immigration and security issues were top issues for those countries as they dealt with the fallout from the battles against ISIS.

He expected the Trump election would also be weighing on the minds of the leaders - the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has already said Trump would be more difficult to work with.

While in Belgium, English will also travel to Flanders to mark the centenary year of major World War I battles such as Messines and Passchaendale. More than 5000 New Zealanders died on those battlefields.

- NZ Herald

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