European Union leaders have talked up the prospects of a free trade agreement, saying it would send a strong political signal as protectionism takes hold elsewhere. They have even suggested it could be completed within three years.

Bill English arrived in Brussels today on his first official overseas trip as Prime Minister.

After meeting English, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said they expected formal negotiations for the long-awaited free trade agreement between the EU and New Zealand to begin soon.

Tusk said it would further strengthen relations and made an apparent reference to the election of US President Donald Trump, the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of Marine Le Pen's Front National party in the looming presidential elections in France.


"Such an agreement would not only boost sustainable economic growth, investment and job creation on both sides, it would also send a strong political signal of economic openness and trade at a time of protectionist pressures are on the rise not only on our own continent but also round the world."

Juncker also said he was "very eager" to conclude a trade agreement, but pointed to "difficulties" within the EU and globally.

"At least we are hopeful we will be able to make the progress we need. There are remaining difficulties, but we will solve these problems, like others, because New Zealand is a very strong ally of the European Union and we want to continue in that vein.

Despite that, Juncker was optimistic a New Zealand-EU deal could be finalised in three years - half the time it usually took and less than a third of the 10 years it took for Canada. He said it usually took between 5-10 years.

PM Bill English and EU Council President Donald Tusk before talks in Brussels. Photo/ Supplied
PM Bill English and EU Council President Donald Tusk before talks in Brussels. Photo/ Supplied

"But I do think two or three years would be enough because we have very similar situations. We are friends, we are allies. We know each other and I think this could be done in a shorter period of time than it is usually done."

English said there was agreement to start negotiations as soon as possible. He noted New Zealand and the EU had signed a agreement as a precursor to a trade deal last year. It takes effect tomorrow.

"I thank the President [Juncker] for his leadership and for the Commission's clear willingness to remain open for business on trade agreements despite some of the political challenges that go with it."

He said the EU was the second largest economic entity and New Zealand's third largest trading partner, so it was important to a small country that relied on trade.


"It is my expectation we should be able to promptly conclude a trading agreement that opens up opportunities for our businesses, small and large, and underscores our shared values."

Prime Minister Bill English and EU Council President Donald Tusk. Photo / Supplied
Prime Minister Bill English and EU Council President Donald Tusk. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand is one of only six World Trade Organisation countries that does not yet have a trade agreement with the 28 member states of the EU, but recent agreements have been bogged down.

It took Canada 10 years of talks and was nearly derailed after a member state objected. The European Court of Justice is also soon to rule on whether member states' Parliaments need to ratify the Singapore agreement - a process that would delay and possibily derail some agreements.


English made it clear New Zealand would not take sides as Britain prepared to leave the EU, saying both were important to New Zealand.

"I strongly reaffirmed New Zealand's commitment to continue working constructively with the EU and the UK throughout this process. I noted the importance that both sides closely engage with third parties, like New Zealand, as the process evolved to minimise uncertainty."

When English was asked whether he thought New Zealand would get a better deal with the UK if it split completely from the single market of the EU, Juncker replied promptly with a "no" - drawing laughter.

English said New Zealand had a longstanding relationship with the UK and was ready to negotiate with them when the time came.


However, Tusk also signalled New Zealand should do more to help with the refugee crisis, saying it was a "global responsibility".

"The EU will continue to work together with its partners, including New Zealand, in support of neighbouring countries and we encourage our partners to increase humanitarian and development aid as well as refugee re-settlement, as New Zealand is doing."

He referred to it as a "personal sensitivity" for English and thanked him for his contribution. Asked about those comments later, English said he was not certain what Tusk was referring to but believed New Zealand's contribution on refugees was sufficient


Tusk said the pair had also discussed Islamic State and the Ukraine, including the recent extension of sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine.

He had also briefed English on the EU's decision to allocate more resources to security and defence, saying New Zealand was an important partner in such matters.

English late

English was late for his first meeting after his travel plans were delayed by snow in Frankfurt. That meant he had to make the last leg by train instead of plane.

He went straight from the train station to his meeting with Tusk.

His suit was crumpled after the travel but English managed to arrive with a smile and Tusk was heard to commiserate with him about leaving a New Zealand summer to the trials of a European winter.

Several Brussels-based news outlets were also there, although the attraction for some was the venue for the press conference rather than English.

English took line honours as the first leader to have a first press conference in the new Europa Building, dubbed the "Egg'' - a massive egg-shaped structure in which the press conference room is housed.

The new home for the European Council has just opened this week. The $485 million project was controversial and was criticised by former British PM David Cameron in 2011 as a "gilded cage" because of the cost at a time many EU member states were struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

Cameron was under pressure over the cost to the UK of membership of the European Union.