Prompted by British interest in joining the European Economic Community (EEC), New Zealand opened official diplomatic contact with the EEC in 1961. In 1984 the European Commission delegation in Canberra, Australia, was accredited to New Zealand. (The European Commission is the European Union executive, responsible for planning, implementing decisions and running the EU.) In 2004 the commission opened an office headed by a chargé d'affaires (ranked just below an ambassador) in Wellington. In 2010 the Commission’s delegation in Wellington was replaced by a delegation representing the whole of the EU.
There was a significant European diplomatic presence in New Zealand in the 2000s. Eight member-state embassies and the EU delegation were based in Wellington. Fourteen of the other EU member states with accreditation to New Zealand had embassies in Canberra. Others were more distant: Estonia’s ambassador was resident in Tokyo and Latvia’s in London. Bulgaria, Lithuania and Luxembourg did not have ambassadors accredited to New Zealand.
Wide-ranging contact with European countries was a relatively new development. Until the 1960s New Zealand had followed Britain’s lead. In the 19th and early 20th centuries France and Germany were seen as a threat to British control in the Pacific. Germany was the aggressor in two world wars in which New Zealand troops fought. At the same time, the cultural sophistication of European nations, particularly France, was taken for granted and often admired.
New Zealand’s commitment to fighting in Europe during two world wars had a potent effect on the British response to the later fight to maintain trade access. The British public and media took New Zealand’s side. In a confidential memo, the British chief negotiator admitted that the New Zealanders ‘had us over a political barrel’.1
Despite the economic importance and focus of the EU, the formal agreement between the two parties (the 2007 EU–New Zealand Joint Declaration on Relations and Cooperation) dedicated only seven out of 51 paragraphs to economic relations. Although the EU was negotiating free trade agreements with other countries in the Asia–Pacific region, in 2011 the EU trade commissioner, Karel de Gucht, thought that such an agreement with New Zealand would be premature. New Zealand has free trade agreements with many countries, and was the first developed country to sign one with China.
Areas of EU–New Zealand cooperation have included the environment, science and technology, education, and the promotion of security, development and human rights in the Pacific. New Zealand has had a particularly strong voice and expertise as part of the Pacific Islands Forum, and the EU has been the second-largest aid donor to forum member countries. The EU and New Zealand were very early adopters of emissions trading schemes. The National Centre for Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, the European Union Centres Network and internships in the European Parliament for postgraduate students were all funded by the European Commission.
Where is New Zealand?
Even in 2020 New Zealand’s South Pacific location did not always determine its international diplomatic position. Within the United Nations it remained one of the Western Europe and Others Group (along with Australia and Canada) rather than the Asia–Pacific Group. Its longstanding habit of voting with Britain emphasised this link.
According to European Commission President José Barroso, who visited New Zealand in 2011, New Zealand was one of the nations whose policies and outlooks most closely resembled those in Europe. This was often highlighted by similar voting patterns in international institutions such as the United Nations. The EU and New Zealand both supported regional integration in South-East Asia and actively participated in the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) Regional Forum.
2010 marked another change for the EU–New Zealand relationship when New Zealand, along with Australia and Russia, joined the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM). This initiative was launched in 1996 as a way of bringing together the European Union and Asian countries. In 2011 ASEM comprised the EU’s 27 member states and 18 Asian countries. It remained to be seen how New Zealand would utilise this new diplomatic forum to enhance its image and relevance for Europe – or indeed for the other Asian partners in ASEM.