Editorial: An EU trade deal deserves NZ's best effort

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Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Nick Reed
Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Nick Reed

Encouraging words were heard from leaders of the European Union when Bill English met them to discuss, among other things, a free trade agreement. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Council president Donald Tusk, said an agreement would, "not only boost sustainable economic growth, investment and jobs, it would also send a strong political signal of economic openness and trade at a time protectionist pressures are on the rise, not only on our own continent but around the world".

Perversely, Brexit and the threatened policies of Donald Trump may have greatly helped New Zealand's prospects of an agreement with the EU. Canada has just concluded one. After 10 years of talks, the negotiations moved rapidly to a conclusion at the end of last year.

The deal was clearly a response to the dark cloud that had descended over US trade policy, threatening the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as prospects of a Trans-Atlantic pact as ambitious as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Canada-EU agreement effectively declared the protectionist cloud did not cover all of North America, nor had Brexit darkened the mood in Brussels. The EU is bound to erect barriers to British trade, to show its members there are benefits in remaining and costs if they leave, but it is demonstrating that the loss of Britain's liberalism on trade might not tip the balance to protectionism within the councils of Europe.

In concluding an agreement with Canada and talking encouragingly to New Zealand, the EU is also showing Commonwealth countries they no longer need Britain to be their broker in Europe.

This is a message New Zealand should seize with enthusiasm. Britain's leavers might be willing to sacrifice an open market of $500 million people over immigration or a few niggly regulations, New Zealand food exporters would eagerly welcome such access.

Tusk has asked this country to do more to help the refugees who press on the EU's borders and contribute greatly to the tensions between its members. Many New Zealanders think we should be doing better than our annual intake for resettlement.

An increase might be politically difficult for English in election year, particularly since regular immigration has been running at record levels over the past two years, but the country's refugee resettlement capacity can be expanded. And if it helps advance trade negotiations, all the better.

At the same time, New Zealand needs to negotiate a new trade agreement with Britain. First, though, it has offered the expertise of its trade officials to help Britain negotiate new deals with the EU and with countries the UK has not dealt directly since joining the Common Market more than 40 years ago.

If the EU wants to do a free trade agreement with New Zealand within three years, as Tusk suggests, our experts should give their attention to that opportunity. Britain is a much smaller market and can look after itself. That is what is has voted to do. Europe offers greater rewards.

- NZ Herald

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