Interview on BBC Radio 4 Today with Justin Webb




Justin Webb: There is a practical Brexit meeting today. Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Trade Minister is going to hold talks in London with the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox. And Mr Birmingham has been telling me what is on the agenda.


Simon Birmingham: Well the agenda will discuss both the short term issues surrounding Brexit from an Australian and UK relationship perspective. As well as the longer term objective and mission which is to see a comprehensive, ambitious free trade agreement between our two nations.


Justin Webb: On the short term how easy is it, how possible is it, if we were to leave the European Union without a deal on March the 29th, what would the state of our trade then be with Australia? How easy would it be to replicate the EU side of it?


Simon Birmingham: So we’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of some of the technical access points, such as our wine agreement that we have with the EU which was replicated and signed between Australia and the UK last Friday. So, in those senses many of the technical issues have been dealt with. But of course what we will be looking for is to ensure that we have the maximum number of opportunities for goods, services, trade between our two nations.


Justin Webb: But it doesn’t sound to me like that is exactly buttoned down?


Simon Birmingham: Well in terms of the total quantum of trade and how that works, there will be some technical issues potentially around the tariff quotas that are put in place with the EU. That’s why we would want to progress free trade agreement discussions as quickly as we possibly can, in the event of whatever occurs.


Justin Webb: So what you are saying really plainly is that there is good will on both sides but it is unlikely, actually, that on March the 29th that we would have the same deals in place with Australia that the European Union does now?


Simon Birmingham: No in that sense we have absolutely worked to replicate the agreements that we have in place, but what we have as well with the EU and the current arrangements are that there are limits, there are quotas, on some goods that can be imported in to the EU. The proposal that is being presented in Brussels, which Australia doesn’t entirely agree with, is to split those quotas between the EU and the UK. Now that of course is an interim measure in that we hope to secure a free trade agreement with both the UK, and with the EU, that would give much better access in terms of the way in which trade occurs between Australia, the UK and Australia and the EU.


Justin Webb: Is there a problem in the longer term with rules of origin? I’m thinking particularly of cars, you know a lot of cars built in Britain are actually using parts that come from elsewhere in the European Union. But when we’re all in the European Union that can still be regarded as a British Car. After we leave the European Union, if we do, then obviously rules of origin are potentially very complex and difficult. Have you approached that at all?


Simon Birmingham: Rules of origin are complex issues. They are not unusual of course. They are matters that are contemplated in many trade agreements that Australia has. We can pick up experiences in dealing with matters such as rules of origin and transfer them over in terms of how they are most successfully achieved under trade agreements and arrangements. There are of course standards that we would look to as to an acceptable level of input from other nations.


Justin Webb: What is the proper way to look at the time frame for a comprehensive deal? Because as you mentioned you’re trying to do a comprehensive deal, a real trade deal, a deep trade deal, with the EU at the moment. If we were to start on that, just Britain and Australia, how long do you think, roughly how long do you think it would take?


Simon Birmingham: These things can take years, but they need not necessarily take years either. It does depend on whether the two parties share sufficient ambition, ambition to have a relatively open arrangement. And I would hope that between Australia and the UK, there will be a shared ambition to have a very open arrangement in so far as the two way flow of goods, of services, of investment. After all ours is a very long, rich, deep history and we share very common legal, political, cultural structures as well as economic structures and so we ought to be able to do this fairly quickly and not take the many years that some trade agreements can take to negotiate.


Justin Webb: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.