Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Britain, Europe and New Zealand

by Martin Holland and Serena Kelly

New Zealand’s historically vital relationship with Britain has lessened over time, particularly after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. However, links with Britain – and with the wider European Union – remained important in the 2000s.

Relations with Britain and Europe in the 2000s

Important ally

The European Union (EU) was an important ally for New Zealand in the 2000s, both economically and politically. In trade terms, the EU was New Zealand’s third-largest export market after Australia and China, taking 16% of total exports. Although there were disagreements, trading relations with the EU remained cordial.

In 2015 it was announced that the EU and New Zealand would work towards negotiating a free-trade agreement.

Exported expertise

The links between Britain and New Zealand go beyond trade and diplomacy. In 2012, New Zealand’s Treasury, its ministries of Economic Development, Education and Health, the Public Service Association, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the National Library were all headed by people born in the United Kingdom.

The big three

The New Zealand government placed a strong emphasis on the relationship with the traditional ‘big three’ countries of the European Union – Britain, Germany and France. The east–west divide that existed until 1989 between nations aligned to the Soviet Union and the United States affected relations – New Zealand’s strongest links were with the western countries of the EU rather than with the newer eastern- and central-European member countries.


The historical link between the United Kingdom and New Zealand remained strong. While the relationship had been redefined when the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the UK remained New Zealand’s fourth-largest trading market, and the bulk of New Zealand exports to Europe passed through Britain. The UK’s exit from the EU in 2020 seemed likely to be lead to increased bilateral trade with New Zealand, and perhaps a free trade agreement between the two countries.

Ancestral and familial links remained important. Britain also provided the largest number of immigrants and tourists from Europe to New Zealand, and it was usually the first port of call for New Zealanders visiting or living in Europe. However, the relationship was strained in the 2000s by the introduction of restrictions on non-EU citizens (including New Zealanders) migrating to Britain.


Due to the size of its post-reunification economy, Germany has increased in importance to New Zealand. In the 2000s the two nations found that they shared some views, such as opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.


In the eyes of the New Zealand public, relations between the two countries deteriorated from the 1970s to the 1990s. Controversy arose over French nuclear testing in the Pacific from 1963 to 1996 and the French bombing of the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985.

Public perception

In spite of the economic, strategic and historical importance of the EU to New Zealand, understanding of the EU among the general public was limited. For many its image was negatively coloured by perceptions formed when Britain joined the EEC in the 1970s. Despite this, shared cultural, economic, historical and political values and interests cemented a close relationship. New Zealand’s changing demography and evolving world view (with an increasing focus on Asia) may lead to some change in this relationship in the 21st century.

Migration, travel and tourism

New Zealand has a longstanding relationship with Europe, dating back to the early European explorers. An enduring tie was established between New Zealand and Great Britain in 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and New Zealand became a British colony.

British migration

Most European migrants to New Zealand were British, coming from England, Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Ireland.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries these new arrivals were sealers or whalers, staying only for months at a time. Flax, timber and Christian commitment drew others. By the end of the 1830s there were about 2,000 non-Māori in the country, approximately 90% of whom were British.

At the start of the 20th century, immigration to New Zealand was still 95% British. Of the ‘white’ British colonies (New Zealand, Australia and Canada), New Zealand was traditionally seen as the most British.

The link between Britain and New Zealand was often described as a mother–child relationship. By 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC – later the European Union or EU), New Zealand’s British heritage was deeply embedded. English was the dominant language. Political institutions and government structures, the legal system, introduced plant and animal species, children’s rhymes and Christmas carols, were all largely drawn from the British Isles.

Homesick for New Zealand

New Zealand-born William Pember Reeves first went to England in 1874, intending to study law. Later, with his family, he returned to Britain as New Zealand’s high commissioner in 1896. Although they were welcomed by left-wing London society, Pember Reeves longed to return to his political life in New Zealand. His daughter Amber, mourning the loss of freedom and the seashore, described London as hateful. Despite their feelings, the family settled permanently in England.

Travel back and forth

People travelled between New Zealand and ‘home’, as Britain was often called by Pākehā, even when a one-way trip involved a three-month sea voyage. Steamships cut that to four to six weeks. People went to visit family or to study, or returned to settle in Britain after years in New Zealand. A visit would usually last for months or even years. The cost was high, and most of those who went were well-to-do.

Increasing distance

The sense of England as ‘home’ did not break down until after the Second World War. Factors in this change included the need to find other allies, Britain’s joining the EEC, stronger relationships with Pacific Island countries, the declining percentage of British-born New Zealanders, the Māori cultural renaissance, new arrivals from Asia and the Pacific, and the growing assertion of a distinctive New Zealand identity.

European migrants

People from other European countries also emigrated to New Zealand in the 19th century. Small groups of settlers came from France to Akaroa, from Germany to Nelson, and from Bohemia (the Czech Republic) to Pūhoi. The discovery of gold drew fortune seekers from across Europe, including Scandinavia. Others came as assisted migrants during the great wave of arrivals from 1871 to 1885, and in the late 19th century the kauri-gum fields drew migrants from Dalmatia (Croatia). The arrivals were a trickle rather than a steady flow, and this continued into the 20th century.

Hungry, wet and miserable

After keeping a group of German, Polish and Italian migrants waiting in Wellington for months in the mid-1870s, the authorities sent them to Jackson Bay on the southern West Coast. The land needed breaking in, the soil was poor, rain fell for days on end and money for the project ran out. Most of the settlers left – those who stayed became subsistence farmers.

Migration policy

In the first half of the 20th century the New Zealand government favoured migrants from Britain or of British descent, and actively discriminated against non-white migrants. A world war, economic depression, the increasingly desperate position of European Jews and another world war did little to make New Zealand more welcoming.

A post-Second World War labour shortage and the government’s industrialisation policy had more effect. Italian tunnellers and Greek refugees worked on power projects, Scandinavians helped run pulp-and-paper mills, and thousands of Dutch migrants arrived, the men to help build homes and factories, the women to work in them. In the late 20th century more Germans came to New Zealand than ever before, and by the early 2000s they were the biggest group of new European migrants. The environment – both natural and social – rather than the economy drew them across the world.

From 1975 the preference for migrants from Britain or the ‘white’ Commonwealth weakened. The government introduced rights of residence based on skills and wealth.


International air travel and rising incomes encouraged travel to and from Europe and Britain from the 1960s. Before this, international travel had been the preserve of the wealthy, and most of those who visited New Zealand were from the UK upper class.

In the 2000s family ties and a shared language continued to encourage British visitors. Britain ranked fourth as a source of visitors to New Zealand in 2018. Germany (fifth) was the only other EU country in the top 12.


Until the development of refrigeration in the 1880s, New Zealand’s isolation and limited range of goods restricted trade with Britain and Europe. Wool, tallow, timber and gold were sent overseas, but anything that would rot was not. Once meat and dairy products could be transported, Britain became New Zealand’s dominant customer for several decades.

The ships that carried refrigerated meat and butter returned with British manufactured goods of all kinds. Many of New Zealand’s needs were met this way, with Britain supplying up to 70% of New Zealand’s imports until 1920. There was also a thriving market in the Pacific for manufactured items, which New Zealand helped satisfy by on-selling British goods.

Trade agreements with countries outside the Commonwealth were arranged on New Zealand’s behalf by Britain until the 1920s. The second such New Zealand-negotiated trade relationship was with Belgium in 1933 (the first had been with Japan).

Although Britain took all of New Zealand’s meat and dairy products during the Second World War and for several years after, trade had started to diversify. This gathered pace in the 1960s, including trade with the countries of the European Economic Community (EEC). At the start of the decade, Britain was taking just over half of New Zealand’s exports. By the early 1970s the proportion was just over a third, and the continued fall was swift.

Britain joins the EEC

Although New Zealand’s strong attachment to the UK had begun to weaken by the 1960s, it was still a shock to New Zealanders when in 1961 ‘mother Britain’ announced its intention to join the newly formed EEC. Until this time, Britain had not joined because of its trade agreements with Commonwealth countries. When European economies began to do better than the Commonwealth, British policy changed.

Britain’s farm

New Zealand was ‘an English farm in the Pacific,’1 said Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister who began negotiations to join the EEC in the 1960s. New Zealand politicians agreed – Prime Minister Keith Holyoake had warned Macmillan that ‘New Zealand would be ruined’2 when Britain joined the EEC if safeguards were not provided for its exports.

The British government acknowledged that New Zealand was the most vulnerable of its Commonwealth trading partners. Because of this, New Zealand was given what was effectively a veto over British membership of the EEC if it found the terms negotiated unacceptable. Instead, it chose to focus on achieving a favourable outcome for its exports under the Luxembourg agreement of 1971, under which the UK joined the EEC in 1973.

Butter or meat?

New Zealand concentrated on gaining adequate access for its dairy exports, at the expense of products such as sheep meat and wool. The result was special treatment for New Zealand butter exports, although these were required to drop to 71% of the pre-1971 level by 1977. Although the export of sheep meat was important for the New Zealand economy, the focus on dairy products meant that European tariffs on meat remained rather high at 20%.

Trading relations since 1973

After 1973 trading relations between New Zealand and the EU were sometimes difficult. Access to European markets for New Zealand cheese and milk powder remained limited. There was talk in the 1980s of raising tariffs on meat further because of the cheapness of New Zealand meat. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took up New Zealand’s cause, with the result that tariffs were reduced in return for a quota system limiting the volume of meat exports.

From the 1990s New Zealand sold value-added meat to Europe – pre-packed and chilled, rather than frozen. This moved lamb into the luxury market. In France, Germany and Belgium, chilled lamb earned twice the amount paid for the frozen variety in Britain. In the 2000s the European Union was one of two key export markets for New Zealand meat (the other was the United States) which together took 50% of exports by volume.

Tough as old boots

Persuading Germans to eat New Zealand lamb was difficult – they had been sent old, badly stored mutton as food aid after the Second World War. Older Germans didn’t want to try it again. The French were also a challenge. Protectionism and the sinking of the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior by French government agents complicated the marketing of New Zealand lamb.

An inevitable decline?

Britain joining the EEC may have masked an inevitable decline in New Zealand’s agricultural exports to the UK. More local dairy farms, agricultural subsidies and protectionism, along with the increased availability of meats other than sheep and beef, and of oils other than butter, might have led in any case to a fall in dairy and meat buying in Britain. In the case of wool, the impact of the development of synthetic fibres for carpet manufacture was clear. Wool prices dropped by 40% In 1966, well before Britain joined the EEC, and never recovered.

    • Harold Macmillan, At the end of the day, 1961–1963. London: Macmillan, 1973, p. 349. Back
    • At the end of the day, p. 131. Back

Political cooperation

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.

War effort

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

Economic interests

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.

Shared values

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.

    • Quoted in Matthew Gibbons, ed., New Zealand and the European union. Auckland: Pearson, 2008, p. 9. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Martin Holland and Serena Kelly, 'Britain, Europe and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Martin Holland and Serena Kelly, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012