Saturday, April 13, 2024

O’Connor reflects on tough EU negotiations

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Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor says critics of the government’s greenhouse gas emissions policy have not clearly explained their positions to levy payers and are not reflecting what exporters are saying. File photo
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Trade Minister Damien O’ Connor concedes he did not get everything he wanted in free trade talks with the European Union, but says there were gains across all sectors. 

He spoke to Eric Frykberg after landing in Sydney en route back to New Zealand, and was asked about the slew of criticism of the deal from the meat and dairy sector.

O’CONNOR: I don’t accept the analysis that there is no commercially meaningful benefit for them. This is a huge opportunity that wasn’t there for dairy and for a number of valuable product lines. And for meat, it is eight times the volume that they had.

It is clearly disappointing that we did not get anywhere near the volumes that we at first hoped for, but this is a trade agreement with the most protectionist bloc of countries in the world. It thinks local production is the way to food security, not trade.  The timing, with the Ukraine conflict, added a bit of impetus to their belief that they needed to protect their farmers.  We did not share that view, but in the end this is a negotiation and they had a bit more leverage than we did.

FARMERS WEEKLY:  But meat and dairy account for practically half of all New Zealand goods exports, the things we did get victories on, like seafood and wine, account for just 13%, so the argument is that you have been focusing on the accessories of a car and ignoring the engine.

O’CONNOR: There was as much effort (by negotiators) if not far more in those areas of beef and dairy. The reality is, it was always going to be really hard, it was hard, but in the other areas we made huge breakthroughs, with potential for huge growth which we welcome, along with opportunities for growth in services.

FARMERS WEEKLY: Some people have said you should have walked away from the talks and not signed up to the deal. Did you consider walking away, or were you determined to stay to get the best deal you could?

O’CONNOR: We were going to stay and indeed we did, until the last minute, to get the very best deal we could. Of course, walking away is always an option but we weighed up (our choices) as we progressed til the last days and we clearly ended up with a very valuable trade agreement.

FARMERS WEEKLY: Was there any disadvantage from the Prime Minister’s comment, at a press conference, that she wanted an “improvement on the status quo”? Did that tip your hand as it were, instead of keeping your cards close to your chest?  

O’CONNOR: Not at all, the Prime Minister’s intervention and direct connection with the EU President von der Leyen was hugely valuable in having commitment at the highest level to having this agreement concluded. The leverage was invaluable at every stage of these negotiations. 

FARMERS WEEKLY: So you don’t think that comment made you a captive market, since the Prime Minister said she wanted an improvement, which could have been quite small?

O’CONNOR: That’s a ridiculous analysis to take from a comment that was important and useful as we moved through the latter stages of the negotiation.

FARMERS WEEKLY: What was it like in the negotiating room, how hard was it?

O’CONNOR: It’s not one big room at one time, it is an ongoing series of discussions and meetings. This is a complex process and our trade negotiators did an outstanding job in pushing us as far ahead as we could. Ultimately, there were some political decisions on compromises that were required to be taken.

FARMERS WEEKLY: It has been suggested that we gave away some beef and dairy access instead of standing firm, so we could get less onerous patent payments on pharmaceuticals. Is that true?

O’CONNOR: We didn’t give away anything, we gained in every single area of trade with the EU, so nothing was ever given away for anything.

FARMERS WEEKLY: But perhaps not as much was got, in return for cheaper medicines?

O’CONNOR: There was always a bottom line of pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicines. The farmers have to realise that we were protecting costs for the agricultural sector as well as for the health system. The cost of medicines has always been a red line in negotiating all of our agreements. It was a hard one to push through with the EU, but we got it there and we got better access for all other areas for our economy.

FARMERS WEEKLY: So you are pleased overall?

O’CONNOR: I was very pleased with the outcome. Of course, there is disappointment in any negotiation because you never get all of what you want. But overall, this was an outstanding result for us.

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