UK, Australia seal trade deal in post-Brexit boost for Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in London, on June 15, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in London, on June 15, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Britain and Australia struck a new free-trade agreement as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to expand commercial ties with countries around the world after Brexit.

The main elements of the pact were finalised at a dinner between Mr Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday (June 14) night, 10 Downing Street said in a statement.

A final agreement in principle will be published in the coming days, the British government said.

"Today marks a new dawn in the UK's relationship with Australia," Mr Johnson said. "Our new free-trade agreement opens fantastic opportunities for British businesses and consumers."

The Australia deal is expected to boost the size of the British economy by 0.02 per cent over 15 years. Its completion is a political boost to Mr Johnson's post-Brexit agenda, although there may be a backlash from farmers concerned over opening up access to the British market.

The agreement marks the first deal with a major ally that goes beyond rolling over a pre-existing European Union trade relationship.

Australia is Britain's 20th-largest trading partner globally, and trade with Australia made up 1.2 per cent of its total in 2020.

The agreement will cut tariffs on products like Scotch whisky, clothing and cars. It will also reduce levies on agricultural products, a point of controversy that had sparked a backlash from Britain's farming sector.

Farmers have raised concerns that they would be undercut by cheap meat imports from Australia. Under the terms of the deal, there will be a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years, using tariff-rate quotas and other safeguards, the British government said.

Progress with Australia is a welcome relief for Mr Johnson amid ongoing tensions with the EU over their post-Brexit settlement, particularly concerning Northern Ireland.

Britain has opted not to introduce some checks on goods crossing into Northern Ireland, saying the EU's "draconian" approach to enforcing the rules is hurting local communities.

The EU, which is Britain's largest trading partner, says the UK is failing to implement the terms of the Brexit deal Mr Johnson signed less than two years ago.

Britain's next trade targets are deals with New Zealand and the United States, though an accord with the latter in the short-term looks unlikely given President Joe Biden's desire to focus on domestic issues.

The British government also sees the Australia accord as a stepping stone to joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-country pact that includes the likes of Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

For Australia, the agreement would be the latest in a string of bilateral free-trade deals signed in the past decade with nations including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, as well as with the CPTPP. It is also in negotiations to join a pact with the EU.

Mr Morrison has been encouraging Australian exporters to diversify into more markets after geopolitical tensions with largest-trading partner China spilled into trade reprisals, including tariffs on barley and wine, and coal shipments blocked at Chinese ports.

"Reinforcing our trade relationship is a great opportunity," Mr Morrison said in a speech in London on Monday.

"As the United Kingdom moves into a completely new generation of their trading relationships with the world, who better to start that journey with than Australia?" he said.

"Who better understands the challenges of moving in that environment, where Australia has blazed quite a trail when it has come to securing positive effective trading relationships with so many countries?"