Brussels - European Union countries decided on Tuesday to give the green light to start negotiations towards free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.
The decision to authorize the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to begin trade talks with the two countries comes as the bloc is pushing for free trade deals worldwide against the backdrop of US President Donald Trump's protectionist trade policies.
"Today's decision to open trade talks with Australia and New Zealand sends a strong signal to both countries that we value our partnerships with them and want to strengthen our existing ties," said Bulgarian Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
"[It] is also a reminder to the world of the EU's commitment to openness, free trade and global cooperation."
Reducing existing trade barriers
The main aim of the talks will be to reduce existing trade barriers, such as customs duties, and to provide better market access for public procurement and services.
European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom welcomed the decision, noting, "We look forward to adding Australia and New Zealand to the EU's ever-growing circle of close trading partners."
New Zealand welcomed the announcement
"Credit must go to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern whose strong advocacy for New Zealand's interests during her recent trip to Europe helped tip the balance," Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker said in a statement.
The negotiations "are an example of like-minded countries working together at a time when the world faces a rising tide of protectionism," Parker added.
"I look forward to welcoming [EU Trade] Commissioner [Cecilia] Malmstrom to New Zealand next month," Parker said. "I also endorse her aspiration that we negotiate a win-win deal that opens new opportunities for our businesses and safeguards high standards in areas such as sustainable development."
Australia's third largest trading partner
Currently, the EU is Australia's third largest trading partner with annual trade amounting to 47.7 billion euros (56.3 billion dollars) in 2017. The EU mainly sells manufactured goods to the country, while Australia's exports include mineral commodities and agricultural goods.
The EU's bilateral annual trade with New Zealand was 8.7 billion euros in 2017, with the bloc being the country's second largest trading partner after Australia. New Zealand mainly exports agricultural goods to the EU, while the bloc's exports are dominated by manufactured and agricultural products.