Good afternoon and Happy New Year! I warmly welcome Prime Minister Bill English to Brussels today on his very first trip abroad in his new position. And I can tell you that this is also the very first press point in our new Europa building.
New Zealand and the European Union remain close friends and partners. Today we reviewed our excellent bilateral relations and agreed to strengthen them even further.
This should also include a free trade agreement. From the European side, we hope to be able to launch negotiations this year, once all the preparatory work is completed. Such an agreement would not only boost sustainable economic growth, investment and job creation on both sides. It would also send a strong political signal of economic openness and trade at a time where protectionist pressures are on the rise. Not only on our continent but also around the world.
Turning to foreign policy and security, the EU appreciates the constructive role New Zealand has played in the UN Security Council over the last two years.
As I stressed before the United Nations General Assembly last September, the migration and refugee crisis is a global responsibility. The European Union will continue to work together with its partners, including New Zealand, in support of neighbouring countries. And we encourage our partners to increase humanitarian and development aid, as well as refugee resettlement, as New Zealand is doing. I know your personal sensitivity to this issue and thank you for your personal role in this dramatically difficult time for so many people around the world.
We talked about the conflict in Syria, and recalled the need for a political solution. The primary responsibility rests on the parties to the conflict to stop the suffering of the Syrian people; we will continue to use our influence to that end.
We discussed the crisis in Ukraine and the importance of full implementation of the Minsk agreements. The European Union's sanctions against Russia were extended for six months just before Christmas due to the lack of progress in implementing the Minsk Agreements. We reiterate our call on all sides to respect Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
New Zealand is an important partner of the EU in the security field, and we warmly welcome your country's participation in our Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations. I briefed the Prime Minister on our decisions at the December European Council to increase cooperation and to allocate more resources to security and defence.
Let me conclude by saying that our productive meeting today, confirmed the close ties that unite us. I thank the Prime Minister for the important contribution New Zealand is making globally and in fostering bilateral relations with the EU. I look forward to continuing our close partnership together.