Whither Brussels? Peter Kennedy Reflects on the European Union-New Zealand Relationship

By Kennedy, Peter | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Whither Brussels? Peter Kennedy Reflects on the European Union-New Zealand Relationship


Kennedy, Peter, New Zealand International Review


New Zealand and Europe have a longstanding and many-faceted relationship--political, economic and cultural. Apart from the dreadful cost to New Zealand of participation in two world wars that originated in Europe, the continent was the focus of New Zealand's economic diplomacy for many years, as it sought to protect itself from the impact of Britain's entry to the European Union. Today, Europe remains vitally important to New Zealand's economy, despite much diversification of its trade in the last 40 years. New Zealand is also closely tied to Europe in its involvement in the Afghanistan War, not least in police training projects in Bamyan province.

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The New Zealand-Europe relationship has many strands to it--not least being the 12,500 New Zealanders buried in the fields of France and Flanders. The Flemish have sometimes talked of breaking away from Belgium but, if they did, one part of the country they could not take with them is Brussels. And it is Brussels upon which I will concentrate here, together with a unique aspect of European Union/New Zealand cooperation that is many thousands of kilometres away from each of us--in Afghanistan.

When Tony Blair made a prime ministerial visit to New Zealand in 2006--only the second bilateral visit ever by a British prime minister--he flew straight here on a special flight from Brussels. This allowed him to open his speech in Auckland with the comment 'I have just left Brussels', pause dramatically and then add with a smile 'It is always a pleasure to leave Brussels'.

I know that the British take Brussels very seriously, but that has not stopped it being the butt of British jokes at least since the beginning of the European Community. Margaret Thatcher, who was not exactly a David Lange in her joking repertoire, clearly loathed the place. She summed up her views in 1988 in a speech in Bruges where she said

We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels. (1)

One of the reasons for this loathing--apart from a complete distaste for being told by anyone else how to govern--was the large, Thatcher would have said excessive, cost of Britain's entry to this then rather select club. Back in 1979 she made the famous statement: 'We are not asking for a penny piece of Community money for Britain. What we are asking is for a very large amount of our own money back.... ' (2) It did not take too much analysis to work out that Thatcher largely blamed the French for this, but there was another important--or associated--cause: New Zealand. Sir Con O'Neill, the leader of the UK delegation that handled the UK entry bid, wrote in his personal account of the negotiations, since released under the 30-year rule, that New Zealand 'got more than we believed they deserved' and 'we had to pay a high price for it, as a result of the link ... with Community Finance'. He went on: 'The New Zealanders had us over a barrel. They did indeed, to some extent, hold a veto over our entry into the Community.' (3)

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Why? O'Neill expressed it beautifully:

   Because New Zealand was small, because she was far
   away, because of her support in war ... for these and many
   other reasons the way the Community would treat her had
   become a touchstone, for millions of ordinary people, of
   their attitude towards our entry. (4)

Most important

I have long considered this negotiation--to which we were not a party but rather a behind the scenes thorn in the British rosebush, frequently pricking the owner--to be the most important economic negotiation in our history at least until--and possibly beyond--CER and the China free trade agreement. Moreover, we chose to fight it in the way we did--working in support of, not against, UK entry--because tactically that offered the best chance of success.

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