14 May

'Australia-UK trade talks to start in June, but MPs fret over farming' by Hans Van Leeuwen, the AFR

London | Australia and Britain will formally launch talks for a free-trade agreement in June, after a two-month delay during which Prime Minister Boris Johnson's FTA dance card has begun to fill up.

But British fears of low-cost Australian agricultural imports remain a stumbling block to the FTA. On Wednesday (Thursday AEST), MPs from both sides of British politics used a parliamentary debate on post-Brexit agriculture to demand legally binding trade protections for domestic farmers.

Britain last week kicked off its FTA talks with the US and this week with Japan, raising the question as to what had happened Australia's place in the pecking order.

The Australia-UK FTA process had earlier been slated for launch in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic put progress on hold.

British Investment Minister Gerry Grimstone told an Australia-UK Chamber of Commerce webinar in London late on Wednesday (AEST) that the talks would start in June, with New Zealand to follow shortly after.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has said the bilateral FTA could be wrapped up as soon as the end of this year, but Lord Grimstone wouldn't commit to a timeline.

He said he was "ambitious" for a speedy conclusion, and "we will try to do these things as fast as we can and as safely as we can".

"Like-minded nations who see mutual advantage to doing agreements will make progress faster than many people outside realise," he said.

But in parliament, Conservative backbench MP Simon Hoare proposed an amendment to the government's agriculture bill demanding that all FTAs require farm imports to have been produced to "as high or higher standards" as the British equivalent.

The amendment, which attracted cross-party support but didn't ultimately pass, covered standards on animal welfare, environmental protection, plant health, and food safety, hygiene and traceability.

"This amendment to the agriculture bill would make it ridiculously difficult for the UK to sign a free trade agreement with anyone," tweeted Sam Lowe, senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

David Henig, a trade policy expert at the European Centre for International Political Economy, said that although the amendment was defeated, it was "a warning to government not to take the issue of trade [and] agriculture for granted".

The parliamentary debate reflects the concerns of the British farming lobby, which has been vocally arguing that tariffs on agricultural imports are needed because Britain's farmers produce to higher standards, and thus at unavoidable higher cost.

"This is not about stymieing free-trade agreements. It is about not firing the starting gun for a race to the bottom." Mr Hoare told parliament.

"There is no merit in deliberately setting out in government policy the creation of an un-level playing field. Food imports into this country would be cheap for no other reason than that they were raised to lower standards."

An important time

Labour's shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, Luke Pollard, said Britain shouldn't "trade away" its agricultural standards.

"Allowing British farmers to be undercut by cheap imported food is part of the government's plan, and it shouldn't be," he told parliament.

The debate was largely aimed at talismanic US products such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, but the National Farmers Union has also expressed specific concern about low-cost competition from Australia.

Against that, Trade Secretary Liz Truss is reportedly keen to get some FTA runs on the board, and many of her cabinet colleagues - not least Mr Johnson - are keen to position Britain as a champion of free trade.

"As Minister Birmingham and Trade Secretary Liz Truss have said, there has never been a more important time to conclude an ambitious, gold-standard trade agreement that creates more jobs," said Australian High Commissioner to London George Brandis. "We look forward to commencing our formal talks shortly."

Lord Grimstone said the FTAs with Australia, New Zealand and Japan would help speed Britain's bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and also that the parallel bilateral negotiations would reinforce each other.

"You soon get between likeminded nations a coalescence of ideas," he said.

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