Article from UC Alumni Magazine
Researching European affairs nearly 20,000 kilometres away from Brussels might seem somewhat incongruous but as far as Professor Martin Holland of the National Centre for Research on Europe is concerned, it makes perfect sense.
"The European Union as a single entity is New Zealand 's second most important partner after Australia . In whatever measures you take - be it trade, investment or tourism. So understanding the European Union, which is now the largest single market in the world, is essential to New Zealand 's future."
It's coming up five years since the NCRE was established at the University of Canterbury . Initially it was an internal centre but for the past three years it has acquired national centre status as its operation has expanded across five other New Zealand universities.
It has also been self-funding for the past three years, securing about $1 million dollars in financial support. The majority of the funding has come from the European Union itself.
Prof. Martin Holland
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Professor Holland says in the past six years the EU has allocated a total of nearly $25 million to 22 research centres in Canada , the United States , Australia and the NCRE at Canterbury University .
"We were all evaluated earlier in the year as to whether that money had been usefully spent and whether the projects should continue. We were in the top three in ranking and our continued funding seems assured over the next five years."
So how have Professor Holland and his researchers usefully spent that funding?
"What we try to do here is focus on research projects that have regional relevance and we intentionally select research that can only be done in this part of the world.
One of the centre's current major projects is looking at the likely impact of this year's EU enlargement on countries like New Zealand .
"Is expansion going to make it more attractive for us to trade with Europe ? Or are there going to be costs in terms of being squeezed out of markets such as agriculture?"
These questions are being considered as part of a two-year project, which only started six months ago.
But Professor Holland says it is already becoming apparent that the EU will operate as a single market with New Zealand 's dairy sector the most likely sector to benefit.
He says researchers are already identifying New Zealand 's lack of any formal bilateral agreement with the EU as a potential hindrance, particularly if trade becomes more focussed on the internal market of the enlarged grouping.
Another issue Professor Holland says is of prime interest to New Zealand is the EU's development policy for the Pacific region.
"It's the EU, not New Zealand , Australia , Japan or China , which is the major player in terms of development in the Pacific and the EU does have a very specific agenda to create a free-trade zone involving Pacific island states. This is very important for New Zealand ."
Professor Holland describes understanding the dynamics of the European Union as "phenomenally challenging" given the political complexities of the grouping. He says because of its evolving state there is a need for ongoing research.
"It's constantly changing. There are 25 member states and just on a random basis it means there are 4 or 5 elections every year among those member states. If there are changes of governments then the positions of these countries can potentially change quite dramatically.
"We saw that most obviously in Spain this year. A change of government meant a change in the Spanish position on the Iraq war and the use of its troops. So because of that it is phenomenally challenging to actually understand the dynamics of the European Union."
Despite the NCRE's localised focus, it does have a presence in Brussels .
"We have four post-doctoral fellows here and about 20 MA PhD students. Every one we attempt to take to Europe to do first hand policy research with policy makers.
"We send two New Zealanders a year to work in the European parliament. The work they do there isn't necessarily directly related to their interest topics but it is a phenomenal experience for them."
But the traffic isn't just one way. In its five years the NCRE has hosted a variety of European visitors from academic and policymaking backgrounds.
"In terms of eminent practitioners probably the most important was Sir Brian Crowe who was Britain 's most senior diplomat in the European Union. He was with us for six weeks just after the Iraq war and prior to retiring had been the the EU's foreign policy spokesperson.
"We have had diplomats from other member states who have had firsthand dealings in a whole range of EU policy matters.
"On the academic side we try to bring in key people from areas relevant to our research projects plus we engage with New Zealand policymakers as well."
Earlier this year the centre hosted Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee.
Professor Holland says that visit, in particular, highlights the relevance of the centre's work for New Zealand .
"We are autonomous. We don't report to anyone directly but its our policy conclusions that we think will be very useful to inform the New Zealand government so it can have a much broader understanding of the vast complexities of the European Union external relations."
Given these complexities, it is not surprising to learn that the NCRE's work is multi-disciplinary.
"There's about 30 of us here at the centre and we interact on a daily basis even though we come from different disciplines and have different research projects. We've got a community of young scholars, a new generation of people who think and know a great deal about the European Union and Europe in general.
"It's this critical mass and intellectual interaction that, I think, has been the key to our success."