Craig McCulloch, Political Reporter
Formal negotiations for a trade deal between New Zealand and the EU are set to get the green-light in just over a month, National MP Todd McClay says.
Former Trade Minister Todd McClay says he has heard from contacts that talks could start at the end of next month. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
The revelation comes as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads off on her first official trip to Europe with trade high on her agenda.
Mr McClay - a former Trade Minister - said he'd heard from some "pretty good contacts" that the European Council was likely to meet at the end of May.
"It's my expectation that unless something disastrous happens they are likely to give the European Commission permission to formally start the negotiations for New Zealand."
New Zealand's officials are ready to begin talks as soon as the EU gives the go-ahead.
Mr McClay has previously warned that the government's enthusiasm for a Russian trade agreement could put a deal with the EU at risk.
Mr McClay said some EU countries would still have questions and Ms Ardern had to give them a clear answer.
"The Prime Minister will need to very clearly explain New Zealand's position over Russia and what happened over the last three or four weeks.
"In some cases, if it's not answered properly - or the explanation is not there - it could cause issues for us."
Any European member state could still put on the brakes if they had concerns, Mr McClay said.
The Prime Minister is to meet her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Monday and the German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday.
Ms Ardern said she would be strongly making New Zealand's case for an EU trade deal in both those meetings.
"There's a real opportunity there to try and move these things along."
She said some EU countries had held back progress due to concerns about sustainability and agriculture.
"Our view is that's what a negotiation is for. Those are things we can resolve once we're sitting around the table, so our goal is to get those started.
"We're one of just a handful of [World Trade Organisation] members who do not have either the beginning of a negotiation or an agreement."
Ms Ardern said she would reassure the French and German leaders of the Government's position regarding Russia if they asked.
But she said she did not "foresee it being an issue".
"They may well not need those assurances ... we've said consistently the EU FTA [free trade agreement] is our priority and it has to be.
"We've also made it clear that the environment has substantially changed in the wake of Salisbury and we cannot say when or if we would be pursuing an FTA with Russia."
Ms Ardern is also to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in London next week.