Talks between the UK and Australia for a post-Brexit trade deal could be derailed as the UK Trade Secretary’s allies were accused of launching an “unprovoked attack” on counterparts on the eve of talks in London. Allies of International Trade Secretary Elizabeth Truss have made “bizarre comments about the Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, according to trade experts. They added that this could be “an unfortunate but serious setback for what should have been friendly negotiations”. Mr Tehan is due to meet Ms Truss on Thursday and Friday this week, but has been accused by the British side of presiding over “glacially slow” progress.
The Telegraph quoted a source close to Ms Truss as saying: “She plans to sit him down in the Locarno Room [in the Foreign Office] in an uncomfortable chair, so he has to deal with her directly for nine hours.”
While optimism had previously surrounded the talks, a former Australian trade minister said in 2016 that his country would prioritise trade with the EU over the UK.
Steven Ciobo said just three months after the UK voted to leave the EU: “Our discussions with the EU are much more advanced and much more mature in relation to our approach to free trade agreements.
“I would hope by the end of this year we will have concluded a scoping study with the EU, and certainly Australia’s desire is to formally commence negotiations in the first half of next year.
“I see the EU free trade agreement as, and I would hope, certainly, commencing formal negotiations well and truly prior to anything that might happen with the UK.
“The UK and Australia do have a historical relationship, but it’s in many respects a relationship of yesteryear.”
Mr Ciobi added that his country would not be considering a deal with the UK until Brexit was completed.
He also emphasised that even without the UK in the bloc, the EU would still be a huge trading partner.
He added: “Someone raised the respective sizes of Australia-EU trade outside of the UK influence.
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“It’s still very substantial, if you exclude the UK from the EU, the EU remains our third largest two-way trading partner.”
Mr Ciobi was also asked by British media at the time whether the EU would be placed first in the line for a deal, to which he responded “it will”.
He added: “My formal advice is that, and this is from the UK side …, the UK is unable to negotiate or sign an agreement prior to the formal exit from the EU.
“We can certainly have preliminary discussions and that’s part of what I’m doing here this week – preliminary discussions around what a post-Brexit Australia-UK trade deal might look like; Some discussions about what our ambitions and aspirations are, and there’s been good alignment in terms of those conversations.”
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He did say, however, that trade deals happen “when the time is right”.
Australia and the European Union (EU) launched negotiations for a free trade agreement in June 2018.
The tenth round of talks took place in March, which the European Commission described as being “held in a good and constructive atmosphere and showed a shared commitment to negotiate an ambitious and comprehensive agreement”.
Australia ranked as the 19th-largest trade in goods partner of the EU, while the bloc represented Australia’s 3rd-largest trading partner in 2018, after China and Japan and before the US.
Total trade in goods accounted for £42billion in 2018, and total trade in services added another £30billion in 2017.