Australia and New Zealand have started negotiations on a free trade agreement with the UK in what the Australian trade minister described as “a strong signal of our mutual support for free trade” in a post-coronavirus world. At the end of June, Simon Birmingham said Australia was “ready to help the UK find new beginnings post-Brexit and in doing so, open up new doors for our farmers, businesses and investors”. In a statement, he said: “We’ve been preparing for this deal since the UK decided to leave the EU and welcome their agreement to commence negotiations.
“Both sides want an ambitious and comprehensive agreement that builds on our already significant people-to-people links and creates new opportunities for exporters, generating more jobs in our nations.”
Mr Birmingham claimed Australia and the UK hoped to conclude the deal “as quickly as possible” – possibly by the end of this year, although he conceded that may be an ambitious timeframe.
According to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, though, a free trade agreement could have been struck much earlier.
Writing in a column for The Telegraph a month before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU on October 31, 2019, Mr Abbott laid the blame on former Prime Minister Theresa May if the two sides were not ready to start negotiating.
At the time the country was gripped by political and constitutional turmoil over Brexit.
Boris Johnson wanted the UK to leave the EU on October 31, with or without a divorce – even though Parliament had legislated to try to prevent a no deal exit.
Mr Abbott wrote at the time: “As a free trade zone, promoting mutual prosperity between neighbours, the European Economic Community made sense.
“Yet its evolution by stealth was always planned by those at its heart to create a new entity commanding more loyalty than its member states.
“The conservative instinct is not to change without good reason, but when change must happen – because the people want it – it’s not reform so much as restoration that’s needed: in this case, restoring the loose trading bloc that Britain thought it had joined back in 1973.
“Theresa May was right at the outset, when she insisted that Brexit means Brexit.
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“Instead, a determined campaign has raged to stop Brexit happening at all; or to ensure that nothing changes in practice, since Britain will be locked into the system for years – possibly forever – unable to change the rules, or do any trade deals of its own.”
He added: “Let me reassure anyone in Britain, anxious about the prospect of no deal, that Australia does one hundred billion dollars’ worth of trade with the EU every single year, on this very basis.
“True, we have some trade facilitation arrangements, but these arise from the mutual self-interest that exists between any two entities who wish to do business with each other – not a political union.”
Regarding a free trade agreement between Australia and the UK, Mr Abbott noted: “A full economic partnership between Britain and Australia – restoring the almost completely unrestricted commerce that we enjoyed for 150 years, and allowing Britons and Australians, once again, to experience each other’s wonderful countries and lives – would be about the best 2019 Christmas present either of us could have.
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“Frankly, had our negotiators not been so timidly respectful of EU rules, it could have been ready to sign and commence from October 31.
“There should be no easier deal to do than one between Britain and Australia – and with a new team pushing hard, it should be signed, sealed and delivered this year.”
Downing Street hopes the value of exports to Australia would rise by £1billion through an agreement that seeks to liberalise trade for drinks companies, the carmaking sector and professional services.
Britain’s trade with Australia was worth £18.1billion in 2019, according to the UK’s Department for International Trade.
The UK is Australia’s seventh-largest trading partner.