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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Jonathan Sinclair

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Jonathan Sinclair

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British High Commissioner Jonathan Sinclair says New Zealand is one of London’s top three priority countries to do a free trade deal with. He says a deal could be done within a few years, but formal negotiations can’t start until Britain formally leaves the EU in the first half of 2019.

Sinclair says it’s up to New Zealand whether it pursues a free trade deal with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus - as included in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement - but the UK will not be rushing to do one.

Sinclair says there are no plans to change the rights of New Zealanders living in the UK, but there’s no guarantee about changes in the future.

Lisa Owen: When the British High Commissioner Jonathan Sinclair arrived here in 2014 the political landscape in both countries was very different. I spoke with him before he heads home, and began by asking whether New Zealand has a shot at a free trade deal with the UK after Brexit.
Jonathan Sinclair: I think the chances are very good. Our secretary of state, Liam Fox, has said two or three times this year that his top priority once the UK can start its independent trade journey, his top priority for free-trade deals are Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Now, we can’t negotiate a free-trade agreement with New Zealand until we have formally left the EU. That’s because the commission has the competence for free-trade deals.
Yeah, so 2019, round about May; you can’t even start having casual conversations?
Well, we already are, actually. So, last year we started having something called the trade policy dialogue, and our officials have met three times already, just talking. As I say, we can’t negotiate, but we can start to have those conversations about the sorts of deal that we both want in the future and look to scope out those areas of common agreement.
You named three countries there, so where are we in that list of three?
That would be what one of my former bosses used to say ‘career limiting’. I’m not in a position to say, and I don’t think we actually know yet.
But we’re small fry on that list, so we must be number three at the very best.
I don’t think so. I don’t think there is a one, a two or a three. I think what you should remember is that those are the top three of all of the countries we don’t have one with already, and that’s for several reasons, really. If you think about New Zealand’s global identity, it is one of the leading, if not the leading, country in terms of quality free-trade agreements. And I think the UK government sees real opportunity, not just in the trade agenda bilaterally with New Zealand, but in finding common cause with New Zealand on the global stage.
So are you saying to me that because of the nature of our relationship and because of the quality of our nation, we could actually be the most important country even if we’re not the biggest in terms of trade?
I certainly think New Zealand has a really global high profile when it comes to quality free-trade deals. We’ve certainly seen this from a different aspect when we were setting up our department for international trade last year. It was New Zealand that we turned to for advice.
So what time frame would you give it before there is a deal? You say there’s a good chance. In what time frame?
So, we can’t start, as I say, negotiating until we leave the EU. We are on track to leave the EU in March 2019. I can’t speculate on when things start, but if you look at New Zealand, it’s done free-trade deals in anything between nine months and three or four years. So from 2019, that’s the sort of time frame we should be looking at.
So four years plus, potentially?
Starting from now, yes. You’re looking at 18 months to March 2019, and then two to three, four years after that.
Well, the other thing that they’ve said is they’re going to work towards a free-trade deal with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. So what affect would that have on parallel negotiations? Is the UK okay with that if we go with a deal with them?
What you’ll see, I think, and certainly looking at New Zealand’s experience is that many times they’re concluding or negotiating several deals all at the same time. So you’ve had Korea, you’ve had China, you’ve had India, GCC.
This is a bloc— Sorry to interrupt you, but this is a bloc that has— there are sanctions against them, I mean, over the annexation of Crimea. There are human rights issues there, and they’re an existing policy in Europe in regard to this. So if we were to forge ahead with a deal, how would that look to the international community? How would it look to the UK?
I’ll separate this into two. One is our own policy — the UK’s policy — towards Russia. The Prime Minister just this week gave a very forceful speech where she pointed out that Russia is the only country since World War II to have redrawn the boundaries in Europe by its invasion of Crimea. It is fomenting conflict in Donbass, that’s eastern Ukraine. It’s regularly violating the airspace of several European countries. And it has carried out hacking and cyber-espionage campaign, including hacking the Ministry of Defence in Denmark and the Bundestag in Berlin. So there’s a problem there. That’s just a bilateral perspective we have with Russia. Now, it’s up to the New Zealand government how it prioritises its free-trade deals. All I can really say is that the UK won’t be rushing to one with Russia. We do want one with New Zealand.
Okay. Let’s talk about the movement of Kiwis, because this is something that everybody gets excited about whenever there’s changes. So, Brexit has obviously raised concerns for Kiwis about whether we’re still going to be able live and work in the UK in the same way we do now. What guarantees can you give us that our rights won’t be eroded?
Sure. So, as we leave the EU, we’re going to have to create a new independent immigration policy, because, as you’re well aware, at the moment free movement of people allows anyone from around the EU to move into… There are no plans whatsoever at the present time to change Kiwis’ rights in the UK.
What do you define as present time? How long can we rely on having these rights?
I can’t tell you that. What I can tell you is that—
So no guarantees?
No, it’s not that. It’s not no guarantees. We’ve had ministers absolutely certain that the current situation when it comes to— For instance, the youth mobility scheme. 10 years ago, an 18- to 30-year-old Kiwi who wants to come to the UK could work for one year and travel for one year. Now that’s a two-year work visa. We’ve actually liberalised that. We made it better for Kiwis. There are 13,000 places for Kiwis every year. That’s more places in the UK than it is in the rest of Europe put together. Now, only—
But you can’t say how long we’re going to keep those rights.
All I can say is there’s absolutely no plans to change them.
Okay.
And so, yeah, if I said one year, two years, it would look as if we were just about to give it away. It’s not the case. There are absolutely no plans to change it.
What about a free travel arrangement between the UK and New Zealand?
Well, look, we’re going to have two or three different avenues of conversation over the next two years. We’ve got the—
So that’s not necessarily off the table?
Well, look, we’ve got the trade policy dialogue, and we have something that we just created this year called the people dialogue. We’re looking to find ways to make sure that we do future-proof the relationship — exactly that point you make about making sure that we have the best possible connections between our people. And there are 260,000 people in New Zealand who have a British passport. And those connections continue to grow.
All right. We’re almost out of time, but you are also the governor of Pitcairn Island. I think it’s fair to say that nothing good is coming from that colony. There’s a lot of resource going into it, a lot of money from the UK and New Zealand resource. Where do you see as its future?
So, first of all, I have to completely disagree with the premise of that question. Right now the situation on the island is better than it has been for 25 or 30 years. It’s well led, it’s got a great government there, and, actually, just this year, we’ve embarked on a reconciliation process which has really tried to tackle some of the issues of the past. And I’m really delighted by the progress it’s made. It’s out of the headlines, but that has fundamentally changed the tone of what goes on in the islands and the relationship between the island and the rest of us.
Are you basically waiting for this colony to die out?
No.
You’re supporting it 100%?
Absolutely. I’m the governor. I think they have had their problems, of course, and they’ve got phenomenal challenges facing them. I mean, there’s no doubt the isolation, the connectivity, it’s incredibly hard to have a really flourishing economy because it is so far away from anywhere. But what’s happened in the last three years is really encouraging, and they are making a real effort. They know there are demographic challenges. They know there are economic challenges. But they have strong rights, they’re very resilient, and I think that they have as good a chance as they had in the last 20 years.
Thanks for joining us this morning. It’s great to talk to you, Mr Sinclair.
You’re very welcome.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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