Australia has said it could agree to a trade deal with the UK “within weeks” of Brexit as Canberra targets a goal of restoring market access for farm products that it lost when Britain joined the EU almost half a century ago.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Thursday he had phoned Prime Minister Boris Johnson to congratulate him on his election as Conservative party leader and pledged to build stronger ties with the UK, including moving quickly to seal a trade deal with London.
“We will be one of the first cabs off the rank, as has been the case in our discussions with the UK for some time,” he told reporters.
Australia’s centre-right government enjoys a warm relationship with Mr Johnson, who has advocated for the UK to introduce an Australian-style immigration system and build closer trade and defence ties with Commonwealth countries.
An informal British-Australian working group has been meeting for almost two years to prepare for a possible trade deal. But formal negotiations cannot begin until the UK has left the EU and may prove difficult over issues such as agriculture, in which Canberra wants much-expanded access to the British market.
Simon Birmingham, Canberra’s trade minister, said this week Australia could help the UK to get a deal done that would ensure the free flow of agricultural and business products into the UK, as well as investment and trade in both directions.
He said working group discussions were well advanced on preparations for a deal.
“That will put us in a position where if the UK wanted to get the deal done in a period of months, maybe even weeks, well we would be willing to move as swiftly as they were able to,” said Mr Birmingham.
Analysts say Canberra’s ambition to do a speedy and comprehensive trade deal with London will prove difficult as elements of the package will depend on what kind of relationship the UK is seeking with Brussels in the longer term.
The talks could be more complicated than the UK’s bid to roll over its current trading terms with countries that already have trade accords with the EU, such as Japan and Canada. Australia is still negotiating its own deal with the EU.
Alan Oxley, managing director of ITS Global, a trade consultancy, said one of the long standing gripes of the Australian government is the loss of UK market access for agricultural products that occurred when Britain joined the EU in 1973.
But he cautioned that getting agreement on sensitive products, such as beef, in any UK-Australia trade deal could take longer than anticipated.
“Getting greater access for Australian beef in the UK is likely to prove complex, as this could affect farmers in the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said Mr Oxley. “I’m not convinced this can be achieved easily or quickly.”
The UK’s future relationship with the EU and Ireland remain uncertain, with Mr Johnson warning on Tuesday that “no ifs or buts” Britain would leave the EU in 99 days’ time.
Notwithstanding Australia’s desire to clinch a trade deal within London, there are concerns in Canberra that a chaotic no-deal Brexit could disrupt trade and investment flows between Australia, the UK and Europe.
Mr Morrison said Mr Johnson’s appointment as prime minister would bring a new opportunity to resolve difficult issues between Brussels and London.
“It is in the interest, not only of the United Kingdom and Europe to be able to resolve these matters, but for the broader global economy to get some resolution on these issues,” said Mr Morrison.