Former Australian leaders split on trade relationship with EU

Australia’s most-recent former leaders, who both led the conservative Liberal Party, have expressed significantly different views on the country’s trade relationship with Brussels.

Boris Johnson has warned it is a “strong possibility” the UK will leave the EU without a trade deal and told his Cabinet to prepare for a departure on terms like Australia’s, which does not have a trade deal with Europe unlike Canada.

Australia continues to negotiate for such a pact while the bulk of its trade is carried out on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.

Tony Abbott, who acts as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade, was Australia’s leader from 2013 to 2015.

Speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in early September 2019, Mr Abbott said the UK should not worry about a no-deal exit from the EU.

“Let me reassure anyone in Britain, anxious about the prospect of no deal, that Australia does one hundred billion dollars’ worth of trade with the EU every single year, on this very basis,” he said.

He acknowledged this trade was done under WTO terms, which he said arose “from the mutual self-interest that exists between any two entities that wish to do business with each other regardless of whether they are in some form of political union”.

But Malcolm Turnbull, who ousted Mr Abbott as Liberal leader in 2015 and was prime minister until 2018, said the arrangement ensured Australia faces “very large barriers” to trading with the EU and warned Mr Johnson that ending the Brexit transition period on similar terms will be “pretty disappointing”.

“There are very big barriers to Australian exports of agricultural products in particular, there’s a lot of friction in the system in terms of services, there’s a lot to aim for,” Mr Turnbull told BBC Question Time on Thursday night.

“So, you know, be careful what you wish for. Australia’s relationship with the EU is not one from a trade point of view that I think Britain would want, frankly,” he added.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement following a virtual meeting on November 26 that both sides had “reconfirmed their commitment to open and fair trade”.

They noted there had been “good progress” in talks which began in June 2018 for an “ambitious and comprehensive bilateral trade agreement”.

“The timely conclusion of such an agreement would create growth opportunities, deepen economic integration and reinforce our shared support for rules-based trading arrangements,” the leaders added.