Australia and the United Kingdom announced a free trade agreement Tuesday as Britain begins to forge new economic relationships following its departure from the European Union.
The main elements of the deal were agreed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a meeting in Downing Street on Monday night. The agreement in principle will be published in the coming days.
It’s the first major bilateral free trade agreement brokered by the United Kingdom since it left the European Union in January 2020. Britain has also struck deals with Japan and Norway, but they were based on existing agreements negotiated by the European Union.
The United Kingdom’s ability to negotiate its own trade policy has been billed by the government as a major benefit of Brexit. And it is moving ahead with the Australia deal despite opposition from UK farmers and other food and drink producers who are worried the deal could allow cheap imports and set a dangerous precedent.
“We are concerned that the pace of these negotiations, particularly the free trade agreement with Australia, is too quick and denying the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny and consultation,” representatives from Scotland’s farming, supply chain and food industries said in a recent open letter.
“The risks here are enormous for the whole food and drink supply chain and, in the absence of any formal impact assessment to suggest the contrary, we remain hugely concerned at the impact on sensitive sectors of our industry,” they added.
A spokesperson for Morrison said the countries intend to finalize the new free trade agreement by November and enact it by July 2022. The deal “is a win for jobs, businesses, free trade and highlights what two liberal democracies can achieve while working together,” the spokesperson added.
But the economic impact of Britain’s agreement with Australia is likely to be small, according to Mark Melatos, an associate professor of economics at the University of Sydney.
The UK Department for International Trade said in July 2020 that a zero-tariff trade agreement with Australia is expected to increase UK GDP by 0.02% over the next 15 years. The department conceded that “Australia has a strong comparative advantage in its exports of livestock meat” and may be able to supply UK retailers “at lower cost than domestic producers.”
Melatos said any concessions on agriculture would likely be phased in over a long period of time, and would probably include safeguards to protect farmers from being undercut from cheap imports to the United Kingdom.
“I think the thing to watch for are the mooted concessions on human movement between the UK and Australia, including relaxing visa requirements for travel and mutual recognition of professional qualifications,” he said.
The United Kingdom struck a deal late last year with the European Union that established new trading rules that fall far short of the benefits of EU membership. Britain has also negotiated with the United States on some issues — including suspending some tariffs — but a broader deal with Washington remains elusive.
— Simran Vaswani and Hanna Ziady contributed to this report.