04/03/2021 - 15:38

Europe and Australia: A strong partnership in challenging times

The image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison launching the vaccination roll-out in Australia in February by getting inoculated is in many ways symbolic of the EU-Australia cooperation during a challenging period. The jab he received was developed by the BioNTech bio-lab in Mainz, Germany, produced in a plant in Puurs, Belgium and shipped to Australia.

And this is only one example of our working together in the face of one of the deadliest pandemic in modern times. During the early phase when the disease started to spread across continents, Australia and the EU swiftly started a dialogue on how to offer our many citizens who travelled, studied or worked abroad a safe passage back home. In our case we helped the repatriation of all together 35.000 people from Australia and also New Zealand and the South Pacific via Australia. This was an extraordinary effort at times, given the uncertainties of flight availability, transit measures, travel restrictions and medical safety procedures. One of the side effects of this exercise was to get a clearer picture of the sheer number of non-resident Europeans, more than a quarter of a million then, many of them work-and-study visitors, backpackers and exchange students.

This experience once more underlined that we are close in spirit, but far away geographically. In fact one of the main challenges that we faced, was to keep open one of the usual transit hubs that connects Australia with Europe. This brings me to the importance of Perth, as an important gateway to Australia. Being the closest Australian city, despite a distance of 14,153 km from the EU’s hub of Brussels, it is also the only location currently that does not require a transit stop en route. We therefore welcome further discussion on the possibility to open up new flight connections to the European continent and Ireland - once the elimination of the pandemic allows us to return to safe flights and visits in a post-Covid future.

Renewing people-to-people links and tourism, a major part of the service industry in Western Australia, is only one aspect in that regard. Equally important for us will be to foster scientific cooperation. The recently launched “Horizon Europe” science and technology framework, the largest fund ever set up by the EU, allows like-minded partners, such as Australia, to become part of the European research and innovation space as an associated member. This can cover and stimulate activities with Western Australia ranging from bio-med, modern agriculture and climate change to space technology and defense industry. The business community is eagerly awaiting opportunities to reengage in face-to-face meetings as trading partners, joint venture investors and specialized service providers. 

All of these activities will be underpinned by a new momentum to rebuild our economies in a way that makes them fit for the challenges of the 21st century. The key objective that we identified in Europe is our wish to build to an ecologically sustainable trade and investment environment for future generations. The EU has therefore decided that one third of all expenditure of its seven year budget of 1.1 trn euros and the 750 bn euros NextGenerationEU plan will be earmarked for projects that benefit the transition to a zero emission future. We will do this by mainstreaming climate and environmentally friendly policies in all sectors, such as energy, construction, transport, agriculture and science and technology. I therefore particularly welcome the forward looking policy of the Western Australian government to aim for an emission free economy by 2050.  

In order to achieve these ambitious goals we need to re-think our approach and the available skills and tools. Energy saving and climate-friendly technologies will require industry to source new raw materials and rare earth components. Western Australian mining expertise and exploration sites could well become an important contributing factor in this endeavor. We are therefore assessing opportunities available to European investors in a conference in Perth.

All these activities will be supported by setting up a new legal basis for the broader EU-Australia relationship. A Framework Agreement that covers the political, economic, cultural and scientific cooperation has already been signed and provisionally implemented, awaiting its final ratification. Meanwhile our negotiating teams have worked hard to advance the conclusion of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement. Since physical meetings were not possible for the time being, we pursued for the first time ever these type of negotiations in a virtual format. The most recent of these web-stream-based negotiations were held just this March.

There is therefore a rich agenda to be discussed with our Western Australian partners on my sixth visit to the state to join the Western Australia Europe Business Association (WAEBA) Week from 22-25 March in Perth.

For more information visit: 2021 WA EU Business Week – WAEBA   


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