Is New Zealand's European Union trade deal worth the compromises made?

By Sharon Brettkelly for The Detail for RNZ

Trade negotiators - with the help of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - have got the free trade agreement with the European Union done. But is it worth the compromises that have had to be made?

Before New Zealand's free trade agreement with the European Union comes into force, it'll have to be translated into the 23 different languages of the region. 

But considering what it took to get it over the line – and the fact many in the EU don't even want it – the translation of the document is just one of the many complicated aspects of the deal. 

"We are worth nothing to them," Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary Vangelis Vitalis told a room of several hundred farmers and other primary industry leaders this week. 

He said he shared their frustration of "where we had to land with Europe on beef and dairy". 

"But let's also be honest that our current levels of access are negligible to nil." 

The meat industry says the agreement is extremely disappointing and the quota of 10,000 tonnes amounts to 0.1 percent of Europeans' annual beef consumption. Dairy leaders say it will give them little extra volume and some of that volume will still be constrained by quota tariffs. 

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor argues it opens big opportunities in the 27 EU member countries, with a population of 500 million. After seven years, it'll be worth $600 million to the meat and dairy sector. 

That part of the agreement will have major implications for future FTAs, says former trade negotiator turned government relations consultant Charles Finny.  

"On the New Zealand side, it is actually really meaningful, it is a departure from previous policy positions and goodness knows where it is going to lead," he says. 

"From a positive perspective it might mean that India or Colombia, possibly the US, will be less frightened of New Zealand as a negotiating partner because we have demonstrated a willingness to be pragmatic in terms of the outcomes for dairy and meat. We've never done that before to this extent." 

But he can see why farming groups here are upset, because it could be seen as a signal to the rest of the world that they are willing to settle - missing out on the great outcomes they've had in previous agreements such as those with the UK, China and Taiwan. 

Finny also tells The Detail about the hundreds of staff who will have worked thousands of hours to get to last week's announcement. 

"When I first was in this game and we were negotiating very major negotiations with Australia in the '88 period, we would have had a team of maybe 10 New Zealand officials. Now you've literally got close to hundreds of officials involved, and teams dedicated to specific issues as well," he says. 

Finny has been at the trade negotiating table many a time - he was in Brussels in 2015 with then-Prime Minister John Key when a formal agreement was reached to commence negotiations on an FTA. 

The closer negotiations get to conclusion the more tense it gets, he says, recalling FTA talks where they've had to walk away.  

"There will always be some very difficult issues for both sides and sometimes they cannot even be resolved at officials' level. 

"In most cases, the tough negotiations are done at officials' level, there will be some issues resolved at trade ministerial level, there are very rarely substantive negotiations at prime ministerial level but they do happen." 

Vitalis pointed out to his audience at the Primary Industries Summit in Auckland that Jacinda Ardern was directly involved in the final negotiations in Brussels and O'Connor was there for the entire week. 

"It's fair to say there wasn't much sleep in our team as we tried to get this through." 

The deal is done but it is not a done deal, says Vitalis. As the New Zealanders were leaving Brussels, European farmer groups were already mustering their forces. 

"They'd already had a crisis meeting in parliament between some of the this is going to be challenging, there's going to be a huge diplomatic process to push this over the line so we're definitely by no means done."  

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Is New Zealand's European Union trade deal worth the compromises made?