Australian overtures are welcome – but post-Brexit trade deals will not be plain sailing

Julian Harris
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Agriculture often proves a sticking point in trade deals (Source: Getty)

Aussie diplomat Alexander Downer has become the latest foreign politician to propose a quick trade deal post-Brexit, insisting over the weekend the two countries could trigger a "significant intensification" of trade by tearing down barriers.

His positive, liberal words are extremely welcome, and echo a sentiment already heard from the likes of New Zealand's Prime Minister Bill English.

However, there is devil in the detail. Referring to Brussels-imposed obstacles that currently prevent further trade being conducted between Australia and the UK, Downer singled out agriculture as a sector in which this picture is "particularly true". More food products could be exported to the UK, he said.

Read more: What you need to know ahead of the Article 50 judgement

With somewhat unfortunate timing, Downer's comments coincided with a statement from Britain's National Farmers Union warning of dangers stemming from lower agricultural trade barriers. The sector often proves a sticking point during trade negotiations, of course – the entire EU-Canada trade deal, which had been seven years in the making, was recently held up by farmers in the Belgian region of Wallonia. While one side argues it is crucial to maintain standards, the other cries protectionism. A compromise needs to be found, which can be time-consuming and add complexity and red tape to any deal.

The second area of liberalisation identified by Australia’s high commissioner was migration. Aussies should enjoy a streamlined visa process, he said. Admittedly, Downer was referring to senior staff (rather than low-skilled labour – the type the UK government says it wants to restrict) but nonetheless it is difficult to see how relaxing visa rules chimes with Theresa May's determination to control migration. A government source recently said "every sector and every skill level will have some form of control" in May's Britain.

The PM’s Brexit speech last week did an excellent job of appeasing listeners from various interest groups, and of various political perspectives. But while rhetorical skill can iron over conflicting views at this stage – before Article 50 has even been triggered – before long she will need to make some unpopular decisions. Brexit presents the opportunity to forge numerous new trade deals with economies beyond Europe, but it won't all be plain sailing.

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