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Australia and the European Union: towards a Treaty-level partnership agreement

The President of the European Commission and former Portuguese Prime Minister, José Manuel Barroso, visited Australia on 4–7 September 2011 as a guest of the Australian Government. The last President of the European Commission to visit Australia was the former prime minister of Luxembourg, Gaston Thorn, in February 1982. Thorn came to Canberra during the Fraser Government’s last years, and his visit was remembered in the Australian press at the time by disagreements over agricultural issues.

Nearly thirty years later Mr Barroso, who heads the European Union’s (EU) largest department with over 30 000 civil servants, delivered a public lecture at the Australian National University on 6 September. He noted the significance of the strong economic and political linkages that exist between Australia and EU member states, as well as shared people-to-people links and historical ties.

Mr Barroso also reiterated that Australia and the European Commission are in the process of negotiating a treaty-level agreement, which may contain legally binding provisions. Amongst other things, this treaty is likely to address investment issues. It is envisaged that it will act as an umbrella agreement for a range of issues, from nuclear safety standards to intelligence sharing, and some aspects of trade.

David Uren from The Australian observed that the proposed treaty is likely to ‘commit both sides to arbitration of disputes and facilitating investments. The services sector is an area where Europe is expecting the agreement will formalise greater co-operation and, possibly, access.’ The Australia–EU Partnership Framework of 2008 currently provides the basis for bilateral relations and expanded cooperation.

Other areas of discussion between Australia and the European Commission included: 
  • new economic governance frameworks, climate issues, and better delivery mechanisms for official development assistance
  • the situation in Libya within the broader context of developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region following the Arab Spring; and
  • an agreement to work together to develop joint degree projects to improve student mobility between the two regions—this will complement existing dialogues between the EU and Australia on education and training.
In a joint statement covering the meeting, both sides welcomed the establishment of delegated cooperation arrangements for aid delivery. Mr Barroso later said that the EU is ‘determined to continue improving our coordination with Pacific Island nations, Australia and New Zealand, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations, the World Bank and others’ since the EU ‘cannot afford fragmentation in our efforts of development assistance.’

The two partners also signed the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) for Co-operation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy to replace the 1982 agreement (which will expire in January 2012). Mr Barroso and Prime Minister Gillard welcomed the entry into force of an agreement on the security of classified information as part of joint efforts to combat terrorism.

Australia was included (alongside Canada) as a partner country for cultural cooperation projects in the EU Culture Program for 2013. The current budget for the EU’s Culture program (2007–2013) is EUR 400 million for cultural awareness programs and cross-border cooperation projects between cultural operators and institutions. Eligible projects will have a maximum duration of two years and an operating budget between of EUR 50 000 and EUR 200 000.

Mr Barroso left Australia for New Zealand to attend the 40th anniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland. He is the first European Union representative to address the Pacific leaders at a Forum plenary.