Newsroom | 20 May 2019
Positive progress on NZ-EU trade talks
by Sam Sachdeva
Negotiators leading trade talks between New Zealand and the European Union are hopeful a deal can be concluded by the end of 2019, although agriculture still looms as a potential stumbling block.
Dozens of EU officials descended upon Wellington last week for the fourth round of negotiations on a free trade agreement, after talks were formally launched in June last year.
At a public event to provide an update on progress so far, New Zealand’s lead negotiator Martin Harvey said both sides were still hopeful they could meet outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s target of a conclusion to talks before the year was out.
“It’s an ambitious goal but we believe it’s doable ... there are more issues where we’re closer together than where we differ,” Harvey said.
He was hopeful the first chapter of the agreement could be closed by the end of the week’s Wellington talks, while half to two-thirds could be finalised after the next round of negotiations, taking place in Brussels in July.
There would be some issues with signing off on chapters linked to difficult areas which would be negotiated later on “or at the final hour”, although the linkage-related issues were relatively small in number.
Harvey said there were “a few tricky issues” related to a wide-ranging chapter on trade and sustainable development. Another section on the digital economy posed challenges, with the EU and New Zealand having differing models which they promoted.
“We have very similar objectives, but we need to find ways for some merging of the models.”
Speaking about the frequency of negotiating rounds, EU lead negotiator Peter Berz quipped: “I see more of Martin than many of my best friends ... it’s a bit scary.”
Berz said discussions had been “constructive and cooperative” so far, with transparency high on the EU’s agenda when it came to updating the public on talks.
Agriculture still a difficult issue
Despite the warm words, there are still a number of issues where negotiators will be trading blows behind doors - with agriculture at the top of the list.
Berz said “our expectations have been fulfilled” when it came to the issue of market access into the EU for New Zealand agricultural products.
The topic had proved difficult in most of the EU’s trade talks, although there was a “particular dimension” with New Zealand due to the structure of its trade and exports.
“We have a number of member states that of course are very vigilant that we don’t give too much and don’t open up too much, protect our market as much as possible…
“Many say [New Zealand is] a like-minded country, but when we talk to some member states ... they say even like-minded has its limits.”
Harvey said New Zealand had made its feelings clear to the EU about the need for “substantial liberalisation” of market access for all its exports.
“We won’t accept anything other than comprehensive outcomes, there can be no exception.”
However, he would not elaborate on the progress made so far, saying: “It will be one of the toughest, one of the most sensitive parts of the negotiation, so we’d rather keep that in the room.”
Another complicating factor is European elections taking place in a fortnight, which will lead to the appointment of a replacement for Juncker as well as new presidents of the European Parliament and European Council and other commissioners.
Berz said it was hoped the new commissioners - including a new trade commissioner - would be in place by November 1.
However, there were some doubts as to whether that deadline would be met due to debate over how the new European commission president should be appointed.