Over the last week, I was part of a parliamentary delegation which visited European parliaments in London (Goff only), Copenhagen, Stockholm and Brussels as well as the European Parliament itself.
As well as to promote New Zealand interests, the purpose of the visit was to reassure Europe of our commitment to a strong on-going relationship after the Government has cut representation in our embassies there. At a time when Europe is suffering from economic downturn, New Zealand must not create the impression that because we have increasing interests in Asia we are not maintaining old friendships and relationships with Europe. We share values and interests with Europe including commitment to democracy and human rights. We have in the past shared environmental concerns and worked with them on areas like climate change. Europe also remains our third largest market for exports and the world’s single largest economic bloc.
We discussed trade, and I addressed a 120-strong meeting of the European Parliament Committee on International Trade. We promoted the negotiation of a treaty level framework agreement with Europe that we hope will lead to a comprehensive free trade agreement. We have diversified our markets and Europe has no need to protect itself from us by imposing high tariffs on our exports. New Zealand poses no threat to Europe. Only 8 per cent of our dairy exports for example today go there. As it is, our unsubsidized exports have to compete with European agricultural production which is subsidized under a Common Agriculture Policy which consumes 40 per cent of the European Union budget. We have a strong argument that Europe should reciprocate our readiness to allow its exports into New Zealand without tariff, quota or behind the border barriers.
We discussed foreign policy and defence, including the Middle East, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.
We discussed the Euro crisis and future directions for Europe. The European Union’s achievements are substantial. It has brought peace to Europe after two devastating world wars in the 20th Century. It has achieved unprecedented cooperation between member nations and has given former Eastern European bloc countries greater assurance of security. But with serious economic problems within the Union, questions are being raised about where it will go from here.
Only two thirds of its countries have adopted the Euro, and one of the lessons of Greece, Portugal and Spain is that currency union needs to be backed by wider common fiscal and monetary policies to ensure economic success. Providing a credit card without rules surrounding its use is not sensible.
The future of Greece in the Euro and, in the view of many Europeans, of Britain in the European Union is under question.
At the end of the visit we marked the weekend of Armistice Day 11 November, with visits to the battle sites and commemorative ceremonies in Ypres, Passchendaele, Messines and Le Quesnoy.
To stand at the graves of some of the more than 18,000 New Zealanders who perished in the war was a moving experience and a sobering reminder of their sacrifice and the need to work constantly to ensure a peaceful world.
I accompanied our Ambassador to France and her team to commemorate the last action of New Zealanders in the Great War, the liberation of the small French town of Le Quesnoy.
Rather than destroy the town and its historic sixteenth century fortifications, the New Zealanders used scaling ladders to climb the ramparts and took the town by storm, capturing over 700 German soldiers but losing 80 New Zealanders in the battle.
Tragically, they died within a week of the war’s end. Families home in New Zealand would have celebrated the end of war and then learned of the deaths of their sons and husbands in its final days.
Today the town still celebrates their liberation by the New Zealanders every year. Place names like Place des All Blacks, Avenue des Néo Zélandais, Rue Aotearoa and Rue Helene Clark show their on-going gratitude to and regard for New Zealand.
And, as an interesting point of coincidence, our current Ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks, was delivered as a baby by a doctor by the name of Lieutenant Leslie Averill who was the first New Zealander over the ramparts in Le Quesnoy and after whom the town’s primary school is named.