Bill English has met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the last engagement on his European trip.
English’s first trip as Prime Minister saw him undertake a precarious balancing act of trying to keeping onside with both the EU and the UK – without taking sides to ensure New Zealand was not trampled underfoot by either in the ensuing melee of Brexit.
English had described Germany as the “de facto leader of Europe” and Merkel’s influence is such that her say so will be critical if the New Zealand free trade agreement is to be signed in anything even close to the 2-3 year timeframe European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has estimated.
As with most trade deals New Zealand is unlikely to be a priority for much bigger partners.
Merkel has a lot to deal with in Germany, including an election this year, and also the very contentious immigration issues Europe and Germany are having to deal with.
The other big issue English was interested in talking to Merkel about was the migration issues in Europe – including coping with refugees which Merkel is now facing criticism over, including from US President-elect Donald Trump.
That could see Merkel seeking more help in dealing with the Syrian refugees from English – although English has previously said New Zealand was doing enough.
Although English diligently avoided criticising either the UK or the EU over Brexit, he did make it clear that the free trade deal with the EU was the priority for New Zealand’s interests – not only because it is likely to happen sooner but also because it is much larger.
English said New Zealand’s decision to follow the EU’s lead on Russia was paying off in terms of the agreement with the EU.
“If we can get a trade deal, get up and going with it and get it done in the kind of time that the Europeans are talking about, I think that would be partly because of the relationship we have built up and some of the common stance we have taken around issues like dealing with Russia.”
This illustrates what a balancing act international relations can be. New Zealand wants trade deals with all of the European Union, the UK and Russia but also needs to walk a fine line supporting or opposing other issues between the three.
I presume this trip had been arranged while John Key was still in charge, but English has dived into the deep end on his first big international trip as Prime Minister.