Journalist: Minister where are discussions at with Britain and the EU?
Simon Birmingham: Well we have free trade negotiations underway with the EU and we are ready to commence with the UK the minute that they actually finalize Brexit assuming they do. We’ve already put in place a trade working group to pre-empt those discussions to an extent, and we will kick off and I would hope, be in a position with the UK to be able to get an agreement quickly, comprehensively, and with the EU. We’re now well into the negotiation stage, there are some issues still to work through but again, we are ambitious in terms of the type of comprehensive access that we would hope to see achieved.
Journalist: Should Australian farmers really care about Brexit given the number of tariffs and quotas already imposed on our export goods?
Simon Birmingham: I think there are real opportunities in terms of improving our market access right across the EU as it stands at present, including the UK. Whether or not Brexit occurs and how it occurs, that’s a matter for the UK and the EU to sort out. As a government we’re trying to make sure that whatever occurs we can give the best possible chance to get improved market access out of Brexit or non Brexit, through these free trade agreement negotiations. And of course for our farmers, it really is a case that it’s largely all potential upside, as long as we can manage to get the EU and or the UK, to increase the quotas or to remove the quotas to remove the tariffs, because we do find that in a number of those areas we have quite restrictive practices at present, particularly in areas like sheep meat and beef and so on where we are really focused on trying to get better access for the future.
Journalist: How important is the market from the EU and Britain for Australian agriculture?
Simon Birmingham: Depends very much on the product, you look at the UK and one in five bottles of wine sold in the UK is an Australian bottle of wine. So in the wine sector it’s critically important, but if you look in terms of sheep meat for example we have New Zealand with a quota that historically is well above our market access. And so our demands, our expectations in these trade agreement negotiations are to be able to get our producers on a much more even footing so that they are able to be able to ship product at a cost competitive rate, but also at competitive volumes. Because the problem we have with small quotas and the potential that they could be split between the EU and the UK in the event of Brexit, is that they’re not necessarily commercially viable quotas at that stage, and that’s why we need bigger quotas to allow producers to be able to get product in at commercially viable levels.
Journalist: Is Brexit going to impact Australia at all or is it just a sideshow for an FTA with the EU?
Simon Birmingham: Brexit will absolutely impact Australia, how, depends upon the type of Brexit that we see. If we do see a Brexit where it’s abrupt, if it happens on March 29 or June the 30th, without any deal in place, then there will be splits in terms of the existing quotas that exist where some of that quota will reside with the EU 27 as it will be and some of it will go to the UK. So that will create some difficulties for producers and they’ll also then be the question of how the UK structures that, in some places they’ve signalled a potential increase in those quotas such as for chilled beef, in some places they’ve signalled an elimination of EU tariffs such as for wine. That’s good news, but elsewhere that splitting of quotas will create complications and heighten the need for us to really try to successfully conclude these free trade agreement negotiations.
Journalist: Should farmers be worried at all?
Simon Birmingham: I think anybody who does business in an existing sense through the EU or the UK would have some areas of concern, particularly if they use for example the UK as a hub to do business into the EU. Because if there’s no deal and there are customs barriers put in place between the UK and the EU, then that could really impede the free flow of goods that people are currently used to occurring. So there are issues that people absolutely should be planning for, I’d urge anybody who currently trades to have a look at the Austrade and the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department websites. We’ve put as much information out there as we can, we’ve taken a belt and braces approach in terms of duplicating agreements we currently have with the EU to make sure we have identical agreements with the UK so that in terms of standards that people have to meet we should be able to have confidence that that carries over in a seamless way. We’ve passed legislation that ensures, should the deal that Theresa May’s been advoating occur, we can also continue to trade in a seamless way. But there are of course complications and that’s why people need to do their own due diligence and we’ve put as much information out there as we possibly can given the uncertainties that still exist.
Journalist: What kind of deal would you like to see for Australia with Britain and the EU?
Simon Birmingham: As comprehensive as possible. We aspire in the case of both markets for as few tariffs and as few quotas as possible. Australia is a relatively open economy, we we drive home the message to the EU and the UK that much of our agricultural production nowadays of course goes into our region and that’s not really going to change, so they don’t need to live in any sort of fear that we’re about to swamp their markets with produce. But there are areas where we can absolutely contribute to providing their consumers with more choice, high quality valuable produce and products, and we want to make sure that’s available to their consumers and we want it to be available with as few restrictions as possible in terms of those trade barriers.
Journalist: Do you think this British break from the EU could be a good thing for Australia?
Simon Birmingham: We’ll have to see where it plays out. If the UK agrees quickly to a low or zero tariffs and low or zero quotas trade agreement with Australia, well with the UK then we could see real lifting in produce and access and of course we saw some real reductions way back when they entered the common market with the EU many years ago now. So we could recover a lot of ground that was lost and hopefully even grow that. Similarly, in terms with the EU if we can get a comprehensive trade agreement in place, fantastic and Brexit certainly will drive some businesses to think about the EU outside of the UK, perhaps more comprehensively than they’ve done before. And I’d be encouraging any Australian business in agriculture or elsewhere, to look at those business opportunities that exist across the EU rather than of course just base themselves on those historical ties that Australia has with the UK.
Journalist: Minister Birmingham thank you for joining Landline.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.