The United Kingdom has formally launched talks with Australia and New Zealand on free-trade agreements following the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham announced the start of official negotiations on Wednesday, in a speech highlighting his country’s drive to diversify trade as it is locked in disputes with China.
The UK’s Conservative government has heralded Brexit as an opportunity to deepen trade relations with global partners.
While talks have already taken place, formal negotiations had been delayed until the UK left the EU bloc in January.
Birmingham warned that even with an Australia-UK deal, volumes were unlikely to return to those seen in the 1970s – a time before the UK joined the European Economic Community and when its trade was last focused on its former colonies.
“Australia will be looking to secure better market access for goods exports, especially in agriculture, and high-standard rules on digital trade and investment,” he said.
Talks on an Australia-EU trade deal are already under way, and Birmingham said Canberra would also like to conclude them this year.
But he admitted that would be a tough task with negotiations on several trade agreements taking place simultaneously.
Birmingham refused to say whether Australia would prioritise a deal with the EU or the UK.
“The EU is a much bigger market and, notwithstanding Brexit, it remains a much bigger market. But that does not mean the UK is not a significant market,” he said. “I don’t have favoured children in that regard, and I want to love them both equally.”
Separate negotiations commenced in Wellington, where UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke said it made sense to deal with Australia and New Zealand at the same time, given their close economic ties.
David Parker, New Zealand’s minister for trade and export growth, said the country was pleased to be among the first to negotiate on trade with the post-Brexit UK, calling the country “one of our oldest friends”.
As he announced the formal launch of free-trade negotiations, Parker said he hoped it would open up opportunities for regional communities, Maori exporters, and small and medium-sized businesses.
Meanwhile, while not mentioning China by name, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country was also aiming to broaden its range of trading partners.
“Our policy in the here and now is to strengthen New Zealand’s economy and resilience through diversification,” she said.
In 2019, Australian export to China was worth about $103bn, while New Zealand export was worth about $11bn.
The UK is New Zealand’s sixth-largest trading partner, with two-way trade totalling almost $3.8bn in 2019.
Two-way trade between the UK and Australia amounted to about $20bn from 2018 to 2019, making the kingdom Australia’s seventh-largest trading partner.