The Australia–United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement (FTA), agreed in all but name, was announced in principle by the British government. Haled by the government as the first sail of the post-Brexit trading fleet that will propel the nation into the new golden era, shunned by farmers as the first nail in the coffin of the British countryside. One can’t help but see the irony that once again one of the most pro-Brexit groups of British society are criticizing what the Brexit architects are calling victories and ‘grand opportunities’. That’s what they were sold, that’s what they’re still being sold. Yet they believe the product received is lacking quality. That the needs of the farmers are being sacrificed to open up the way to ‘new markets’. First the fish, now the beef. Farmers are pointing out the unfairness that they, as British farmers, are subjected to higher standards than their Australian counterparts. This creates an unequal playing field in which the British farmers are fighting an uphill battle, and if that weren’t bad enough it’s a battle where they are on the defense.
The FTA in principle allows for the phasing out of quotas and tariffs over a period of 15 years on all agricultural products, except for long-grain rice (Morris, 2021). The harsh truth is that UK family farms cannot compete with Australian mega-farms on steroids. UK farmers are too small scale and have to adhere to far stricter health and environmental standards to even dream of competing, ignoring even the current labor shortages due to Brexit. Allowing Australian products to flood the British market will inevitably make UK farming less profitable to the point that the industry itself becomes unsustainable. At the same time the British government is already planning on phasing out farm subsidies, buying out older farmers, and pushing others into tourism, reforestation, etc. (Casalicchio, 2020 ; Harrabin, 2021 ; Messenger, 2020). In the broader context, it’s not difficult to start believing in the idea that the government is actively trying to dismantle the UK farming industry.
The Australia–UK FTA is arguably the first true post-Brexit FTA. This is supported by the fact that it is the first FTA where the EU has not been involved in any form, in contrast to the many ‘roll over’ agreements and the UK-Japan FTA (Edgington, 2021). Its importance is not economical, keeping in mind that the increase in UK GDP is projected to reach at best 0,02% over the next 15 years, putting £52p per year in the pockets of every Brit (Harvey & O’Carroll, 2021). The scale tips to the side of political importance. The Australia–UK FTA can be seen as a political move on two main fronts: the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and their relationship with the EU.
The CPTPP is a Comprehensive Trade Partnership between 11 countries that border the Pacific. In other words, the CPTPP is a club that offers its members more access to each other’s markets than non-members. The access is improved by raising protection for international investors and businesses, lifting tariffs, and lifting other barriers such as regulatory requirements or quotas (Government of Canada, 2020 ; The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, n.d.). The Australia–UK FTA can be seen as a stepping stone for the UK to gain access to the CPTPP. The FTA has at the same time been widely criticized for being heavily in Australia’s favor, with very little to gain for the UK. This naturally makes the UK a more attractive trading partner to other countries, who have noticed the imbalance and are building up their expectations. Other CPTPP countries like Canada will expect to be offered the same concessions from the UK as they gave to Australia (FarmingUK, 2021). This raises the following question: is the UK government willing to sell out to get a Brexit win?
If UK farmers are to be believed, yes. If entering the CPTPP offers the same tradeoffs as the Australia–UK FTA, perhaps.
The CPTPP is a trading bloc covering around 13,5% of global trade. The EU is also a trading bloc, covering around 15% of global trade (Eurostat, 2021 ; Government of Canada, 2020). Based simply on numbers they are comparable, though in practice less so. Nevertheless, dropping out of one and joining the other can send a powerful message. “Your way is not the only way!”. That the UK does not need the EU and can determine its own path. However, to have your own path you need to diverge, and in the world of ‘symbolic-media politics’ this needs to be fast and clear or you risk losing political momentum. The Australia–UK FTA allows the British market to be flooded with products that are not up to EU standards, conveniently saving the government the trouble of defending the deregulation of health and safety standards. At the time of writing the EU is planning on kicking the so-called sausage-war1 down the road. The argument is that UK standards don’t diverge anywhere near enough to pose a threat to the single market, at this time, and therefore meat produce going from GB to Northern Ireland (NI) shouldn’t be subjected to too strict import requirements (Blenkinsop, 2021; Boffey, 2021).
The Australia–UK FTA will inevitably put an end to that. Australian meat products circulating within the British market will permanently make meat circulating within the confinements of Great Britain incompatible with EU standards, ensuring divergence and the need for border checks. The hope for some that the UK will quickly rejoin the EU falls even further out of reach. Even if a new, perhaps even a Pro-EU, UK government comes to power the nation will have to undergo a hefty process of cleansing and realignment before negotiations can even begin. The Australia–UK FTA is just one measure taken by the Brexiteers in power to lock the UK into their policies, even in times that they’re not in power.
UK farmers voted in mass for Brexiteers claiming that the EU is too protectionist and that they would be better off without its meddling (May, Arancibia & Manning, 2021). Believing the lies that those people and their government would put their interests first, whilst ignoring the fine print of the global Britten speeches. As the EU’s influence fades away from their everyday lives, an increasing number of Brits are beginning to notice its positive influences, often for the first time. Maybe even realizing that the EU wasn’t an external enemy controlling them, holding them back. As UK farmers are calling on their government to create and ensure a more leveled playing field, protecting them from Australian and other international competitors, they’d be advised to remember that just over 5 years ago they themselves voted in mass to abolish just that.
(1) Under EU rules, chilled meats have to be sent frozen into the bloc from a non-EU country. This applies to trade from GB to NI, as NI has in effect stayed in the single market for goods under the terms of NI-protocol. The sausage-wars refers to the refusal of the UK to carry out the necessary border checks on meats in the Irish Sea, as was agreed in the protocol, and the EU stating it would act if checks are not carried out.
- Blenkinsop, P. (2021, 20 June). EU agrees three-month ceasefire with UK in "sausage war". Reuters.
- Boffey, D. (2021, 30 June). Sausage war truce leaves EU and UK with much to chew on. The Guardian.
- Casalicchio, E. (2020, 30 November). UK unveils post-Brexit plan to phase out current farm subsidies. POLITICO.
- Edgington, T. (2021, 15 June). Brexit: What trade deals has the UK done so far? BBC NEWS.
- Eurostat. (2021, 6 April). International trade in goods. Consulted on 5 Juli 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=International_trade_in_goods
- FarmingUK Team. (2021, 24 May). Canada eyes up UK market amid Australian trade deal. FarmingUK.
- Government of Canada. (2020, 21 December). CPTPP explained [government website]. Consulted on 28 June 2021, from https://www.international.gc.ca/trade-commerce/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/agr-acc/cptpp-ptpgp/cptpp_explained-ptpgp_apercu.aspx?lang=eng
- Harrabin, R. (2021, 19 May). UK government to pay older farmers to retire. BBC NEWS.
- Harvey, F. & O’Carroll, L. (2021, 15 June). UK-Australia trade deal: what does it mean? The Guardian.
- May, D., Arancibia, S., & Manning, L. (2021). Understanding UK farmers’ Brexit voting decision: A behavioural approach. Journal of Rural Studies, 81, 281-293.
- Messenger, S. (2020, 16 December). Farming: ‘Radical’ changes set out in post-Brexit plan. BBC NEWS.
- Morris, C. (2021, 17 June). UK-Australia trade deal: What are the arguments for and against? BBC NEWS.
- The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (n.d.). Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) [government website]. Consulted on 28 June 2021, from https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/in-force/cptpp/comprehensive-and-progressive-agreement-for-trans-pacific-partnership