Tuesday, 15 June 2021 09:55

O'Connor to tackle 'tricky issues'

Written by  Peter Burke
Trade and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has a busy schedule during his trip to Europe. Trade and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has a busy schedule during his trip to Europe.

Trade and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor is in the UK and Europe this week in an attempt to breathe some life into the crucial free trade agreements (FTAs) New Zealand is negotiating with the EU and the UK.

Before he left NZ, O'Connor told Rural News that while both the negotiations are ongoing, some direct political discussions are necessary to help get through a couple of "tricky issues".

"Agriculture is clearly sensitive for us and geographical indicators and investment in financial services are at the fore in the UK," he says.

"There are plenty of issues around the fringes and while our trade negotiators have been doing an exceptional job to get us to where we are, we just have to try and maintain the momentum and get through these difficult issues."

O'Connor's trip is the first major visit overseas by a NZ minister since the Covid-19 pandemic began. In past negotiations of this type, NZ politicians and officials would have been heading to Europe on a regular basis, building relationships and lobbying potential supporters.

O'Connor's trip will take about nine days and on the way to Europe he will make a short stop in Singapore to meet with that country's trade minister.

However, his focus is very much on the UK and Europe, which is jampacked with key meetings.

"I have got meetings with Trade Minister Liz Truss in the UK and then with other agricultural leaders, including representatives of the National Farmers Union (NFU)," he told Rural News.

"In Brussels, I'll be meeting with the EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis and Agricultural Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. I'll also be meeting some European parliamentarians who are involved in the FTA talks and some of the appropriate committees of the EU. I will be going to France to meet with the French trade minister Franck Riester."

One of the challenges for the NZ/EU FTA is the ratification process, whereby all 27 member states must approve any agreement. O'Connor acknowledges the ratification process is complex.

He says both FTAs are at similar stages of development - even though talks with the EU are in the 11th round and the UK in the 5th. Both are reaching a time when the tricky and sensitive issues are emerging.

"I hope that by undertaking this trip in difficult Covid times will demonstrate to them the importance we place on both these agreements," O'Connor says. "I believe that both the UK and EU see the value in agreements with NZ and we have to build off that."

Even though he will meet key people on his trips, due to the limitations of Covid protocols, there will be no large gatherings with numbers in a room.

"We have to be ambitious that we will have made substantive progress by the end of the year, but there is lots of work still to be done," O'Connor says.

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