By John Braddock
26 March 2018
In an extraordinary intervention, Britain’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke, fired a public warning shot at the Labour-led government over its plans to seek a free trade deal with Russia. Following the Skripal poisoning in the UK, Clarke successfully pressured NZ to join the sanctions that Britain and its allies have imposed on Russia.
War tensions in Europe have spiked as the UK government has escalated accusations that Moscow attempted to kill British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Julia, on March 4 in Salisbury. European Union (EU) foreign ministers last week pledged “unqualified solidarity” with the UK in condemning the “reckless and illegal” poisoning.
The case hinges on the unsubstantiated assertion that Moscow targeted the Skripals with a “Novichok”-style nerve agent “developed” in the former Soviet Union. Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats and is promising “further measures” against the Kremlin.
There are, however, divisions within European ruling elites over Russia. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has pressed European leaders to expel Russian agents, in a bid to dismantle “Kremlin networks” across Europe. Britain is pushing allies such as New Zealand—which, along with the UK, is part of the US-led “Five Eyes” intelligence network—to fall into line.
Speaking on Radio NZ on March 15, Clarke warned that efforts to pursue a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Russia would jeopardise future deals with both the EU and the UK. Clarke declared that New Zealand had to “prioritise” its FTAs, and trade negotiations with the EU and UK “never happen in a vacuum.”
The day after Clarke’s radio interview, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the government had rescinded moves to restart trade talks with Russia. The government had intended to resume the talks, which were suspended in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea.
Ardern said “the situation [with Russia] has changed.” She and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters now agree that efforts to restart negotiations should be suspended. Ardern added that “in the light of the Salisbury incident” she did not know when, or if, the government would be in a position to resume trade talks.
Ardern supported the joint statements by British, US, German and French leaders on the nerve agent attack. “Outrage at the brazen and callous use of chemical weapons in a UK town is fully justified,” Ardern declared. She agreed with the British government’s claims that there was “no plausible explanation” the attack could have come from “anywhere other than Russia” and Russia had “serious questions to answer.”
The about-face came after months during which Peters, who is also deputy prime minister and leader of the right-wing New Zealand First Party, had reiterated his plans to develop Russian trade. He claimed this was necessary to reduce New Zealand’s economic reliance on China, the country’s second most important trading partner. A commitment to pursue a FTA with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union was included in NZ First’s coalition agreement with Labour following last September’s election.
In a television program on March 10, Peters declared New Zealand was “deadly serious” about a free trade deal and defended Russia. He said there was “no evidence” Russia had a hand in shooting down flight MH17 over the Ukraine or that it meddled in the US election. “We have a lot of allegations, but we do not have the facts laid out clearly,” he said. “When you start talking about those moral judgments, you might not be trading with anybody,” Peters added. . .