The Australian deal is the first true test of the UK’s post Brexit trade policy. It encapsulates the problems and flawed ideology that we need to overcome so that we can fully embrace the opportunities that Brexit affords. Negotiating a good agreement with Australia will demonstrate that Brexit was founded on more than just empty promises, as many Remainers would have you believe.
Free trade with the rest of the world was one of the cornerstones of the Brexit referendum and Boris’s full-throated support for free trade is a big part of why voters have supported him in such large numbers. According to recent IFT polling, 87 per cent of Conservative voters in “Red Wall” constituencies are supportive of a UK-Australia FTA.
It is then puzzling that some members of the Government and Tory MPs appear to be determined to scupper something that would be an unquestioned good for both the country and for the party. The main objection for those who have been placing obstacles in the way of an agreement is concern over the effects a tariff and quota free deal might have on British farming.
This includes the NFU and their President consistently raising concerns that UK farmers are incapable of competing on an equal basis or level playing field. A solution that has been proposed within government – reportedly as George Eustice’s plan – is a system of zero tariffs but with quotas in place to restrict any possible damage. However, this is highly unlikely to be accepted by Australia. Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made this clear earlier this week, “Zero tariffs with quotas isn’t free trade, and that’s not going to happen. Australia would never agree to that”.
Of course, what protectionists are failing to realise is that a lot of weaknesses within British farming industry have been caused by our membership of the EU and its protectionist attitude to trade with countries outside the EU. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Protectionism almost always ends up making the protected industry weaker and less able to compete against foreign imports… we should call it destructionism”. I believe that UK farmers will be able to be reinvigorated and rise to any challenges.
The right solution is to turn to a system of zero tariffs and zero quotas – otherwise known as free trade. It has even emerged that the UK Government wants a transition period of 15 years from our current arrangements to reach this point of free trade. This should guarantee that UK farmers have the time to diversify and improve to meet the new global market challenges that free trade with the wider world will bring.
Of course, it is still beyond farcical to suggest that even without the phasing in period UK farmers would immediately be ruined by a flood of meat from Australia. Australia’s markets are currently predominantly in Asia and it cannot even meet its current global demand – let alone usurping British farmers and dominating the UK.
This was made abundantly clear by Australian High Commissioner, George Brandis, earlier this week as he spoke against what he termed “wild claims” as part of a “scare campaign” which, if believed, would lead to the UK pulling up the drawbridge and harming its efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
We left the EU – in major part to embrace free trade with the world – to fail at the first hurdle would be a betrayal of voters that have backed this Government in how it has handled Brexit. After all, we are opening up our markets not to benefit Australia but our own citizens. By embracing free trade we are allowing the UK to have access to a greater range of products at a better range of prices.