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.
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.
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.