Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and the commissioner for climate action, Connie Hedegaard, will attend the 40th-anniversary meeting of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland next week.

In late October, the EU's foreign affairs representative, Catherine Ashton, is expected to visit.

Barroso's visit is the first by the head of the powerful executive of the European Union (EU) since 1982, when Gaston Thorn dropped by.

It takes place in a context of economic turbulence and, for Europe, worrying questions about the fitness of the EU's institutions. In recent weeks, as the EU battled a slump in confidence in the euro, rumours have persisted Barroso would have to cancel the trip again, but this is denied by the commission.

A behemoth of 27 nations and nearly half a billion people, the EU is the world's biggest trade bloc.

Thanks to diversification into markets in Asia, the Middle East and North America, New Zealand's trade with the EU accounts for only about 12 per cent of New Zealand exports.

According to official EU figures, New Zealand goods in 2010 were worth €2.8 billion ($4.7 billion), comprising sheep meat, wool, dairy products, fruit and wine. New Zealand imported EU goods worth €2.7 billion, mainly cars, medicines, telecoms equipment, transport material and chemicals.

Trade in services is now booming, accounting for more than 36 per cent of the total. It includes European tourists who flock to New Zealand and Fisher & Paykel health products sold in France. Other fast-growing links are in education and scientific research, with European universities becoming a portal for New Zealand post-graduate students through the Erasmus scholarship programme.

Within Europe, the status of the commission has taken a bashing in recent years. This is partly because of the character of Barroso, who is often criticised as lacklustre or pliant. But fingers are also pointed at the weaknesses of EU institutions, the flawed architecture of the single-currency treaty and turf battles between national governments and Brussels.

Hedegaard, a former Danish climate minister, is best known internationally for her ill-starred chairmanship of the UN's Copenhagen Summit, which was tasked with setting down a blueprint to roll back climate change but came within a hair's breadth of a fiasco.

From far left to far right

Jose Manuel Barroso, 55, started his career as a member of a far-left Maoist group during the Carnation Revolution that ended Portugal's right-wing dictatorship. In 1980, he joined a centre-right government, then moved further right before becoming Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004. He became head of the European Commission in 2004, and the term was renewed in 2009.

"When he speaks to Socialists, he's a Socialist. When he speaks to Liberals, he's a Liberal. And when he speaks to Greens, he's an ecologist," said the head of Socialist lawmakers in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.