New Prime Minister Bill English’s surname could he his biggest liability in his meetings with European leaders after he arrives in Brussels tonight.
English will head straight into talks with the leaders of European Union institutions who are about to launch into negotiations with the UK over the terms of its departures from the EU.
It is not the best time to arrive in Brussels and say “hi, I’m English.”
Martin Holland, the director of the National Centre for Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, jokes English could help himself by changing his surname to Flanders.
But jokes aside, Holland said English should not underestimate the level of anger at the EU over Brexit.
“He is going at a very interesting time. But he needs to be very aware in Brussels that pretty much everyone there is totally pissed off about Brexit, because it’s unnecessary.
“I really can’t underline enough almost the resentment by the European institutions at having to waste so much time over the next two or so years on doing this when there are much more important things to deal with. He needs to be very sensitive to that in Brussels that there really is no sympathy for the UK anymore.”
English laughs when asked if his name was a liability: “no. I’m sure it will help them remember [me].”
He says part of his work was ensuring New Zealand’s interests were protected in the Brexit changes, particularly in trade.
Holland says although neither side will admit it, Brexit does make things harder for New Zealand because the EU would be focussing on that.
While English was meeting all the “big guns,” Holland said New Zealand had never been a priority for the EU.
“New Zealand may find itself, if not at the back of the queue, not at the front of the queue in terms of priorities. That’s just a harsh reality.”
“So for his meetings in Brussels [English] will have to remind them that New Zealand does have priorities and we’ve been very patient. And whether we can fit into a very full EU agenda we will have to wait and see I guess.”
Holland said in that respect, English’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next week could be more important than the EU meetings.
“She’s the most important player in all of this. If she wants to support and push the FTA with New Zealand then it’s much more likely to happen. If she, on the other hand, says I have an election in September and I have internal problems and this is something that would cloudy the waters then it would get postponed.”
New Zealand and the European Commission agreed to begin work on a free trade agreement in October 2015 and have been consulting since then.
Trade Minister Todd McClay was hopeful formal negotiations would begin by mid 2017. He did not believe Brexit would hamper those talks.
“The Commissioner has been very clear to me that their trade agenda continues and that they have the capacity to manage Brexit as it goes forward.”
New Zealand was also waiting for a European Court of Justice decision on whether the European Commission had the mandate to agree to a free trade agreement with Singapore, or whether the parliaments of each individual member state had to approve trade deals.
That could impact on other agreements and the issue had almost derailed a FTA with Canada last year.
McClay said the uncertainty around TPP and a more protectionist outlook in the USA underlined the importance of building broad trade relationships.
David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, said the EU free trade deal was already important for New Zealand and that had increased given the almost inevitable defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership following the election of Donald Trump in the USA.
“It’s even more important now TPP looks dead, protectionism is on the march, and there are some ominous signs about President Trump’s trade agenda. I think you can also argue a deal would have a symbolic value beyond its economic implications.”
New Zealand will also have to negotiate a free trade agreement with Britain once it has left the EU. McClay said preliminary discussions were already underway.
“We’ve indicated to the UK that we would want to negotiate a high quality deal with them as soon as they can take on obligations and they’ve indicated that they are comfortable with that.
“I think there will be a couple of countries they might look to do a negotiation with separately but at a similar period of time and I would expect New Zealand could be one of those.”
He expected Britain to hold talks with countries such as Australia at the same time. While there had been some informal discussion about joint ‘Anzac’ talks with Britain and both hoped to be first out of the blocks, McClay said there could be competing interests and bilateral deals were more likely.
• EU is New Zealand’s third largest trading partner
• Two-way trade totals $19.6 billion
• NZ is one of only six WTO members without a FTA in place or in negotiations.