7 Jul 2022

It was now or never for NZ-EU trade deal, negotiator says

6:57 am on 7 July 2022

A trade negotiator involved in the just signed free trade deal with the European Union says New Zealand got the best possible deal and if we had not signed now, the country would have gone to the back of the queue.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) react as they give a press conference after a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 30, 2022. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announce the deal in Brussels. Photo: AFP

Vangelis Vitalis who has just returned from the trade negotiations made the comments at the Primary Industry Summit being held in Auckland this week.

The deal secured last week will see 97 percent of New Zealand's exports to the EU eventually become duty-free, including items like onions, wine and kiwifruit.

But the dairy and meat sectors said that the deal was not commercially meaningful.

Vitalis said he shared those frustrations.

"This is the most protectionist agricultural block in the world. It has a long history of protectionism and it has its own reasons and justifications for that based on the Second World War. But the reality is, these guys operate a completely different paradigm.

"I can't tell you how challenging that's been over the last four years to be talking to 27 countries that believe that free trade agreements are actually about managing New Zealand's access into the market. And it beggars belief when you're talking to a counterpart, who thinks that point one percent of their market risks destabilising it."

He said the reality of dealing with the EU was that New Zealand meant very little to it.

"I know people have said it would have been better to walk away but you have to think if we had walked away would we have been able to get a better deal and I honestly don't think we could have.

"There was no doubt in my mind that if we were to leave without a deal that we would be put at the back of a queue. Remember, the EU does not need to deal with New Zealand. It does want to deal with Australia, Australia has high tariffs. It's a big economy and is worth a lot to the EU.

"It was said to me many, many times last week, we care about Australia, we don't care about you."

Vitalis hoped the deal would be ratified next year and would also come into force in 2023 but it needed to go through the European Parliament first.

"We very deliberately focused our negotiations to ensure that we would only go through the European Parliament. We learned a sharp lesson from what Canada has gone through, because Canada has had to go through all of the parliaments of each of the 27 member states.

"But it's still going to be a major political effort, it is by no means a done deal. And if you look at the reaction of both the dairy industry and the Federated Farmers equivalents in Europe, you can see that they're starting to muster their forces."

Farming group Copa Cogeca said its dairy, sheep and beef sectors were the "sacrificed lambs" of the deal.

Vitalis said they will fight the deal.

"Over the weekend as I was leaving Europe I heard that they're already held quote a crisis meeting in parliament between some of the groups, the left and the Greens about how they were going to oppose the deal with New Zealand.

"So this is going to be challenging and it's going to take a lot of political effort to get the deal across the line."

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