Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, UK Prime Minister Theresa May added some clarity to the Brexit debate by stating that formal negotiations for British withdrawal from the European Union will begin no later than March 2017. Australian ears pricked up at this announcement, and with good reason.
To be fair, many had been paying close attention to this debate already. Tony Abbott’s well-timed speech to the UK-Australia Chamber of Commerce ahead of Theresa May’s to the Conservative Party conference later that day is illustrative of the opportunities many on the right see in Brexit.
The Turnbull government offered Australia as the first cab off the rank for a post-Brexit free trade deal. This offer was made within hours of the Coalition government being formed in July. The government also offered the expertise of Australian negotiators to help theUK bargain its way to a future after the EU, where Brussels has handled trade deals since the mid-1990s.
According to a YouGov poll, the prospect of a free trade agreement with Australia has gone down well in the United Kingdom, especially amongst those who voted to leave. Birmingham, the location of the Conservative Party conference, is the spiritual home of free trade in England. The location is fitting, and suggests the new priorities of May’s Brexit government. The ‘Minister for Brexit’ David Davis and the Minster for International Trade Liam Fox are all convinced free traders, and very open to Australia.
Trade Minister Stephen Ciobo’s visit to London in September delicately broached the prospect of closer economic relations between Australia and the United Kingdom after Brexit. ‘Delicately’ is the operative term here because Ciobo visited Brussels too. Here he announced that formal negotiations for the long-anticipated Australia-EU Free Trade Agreement will begin next year – right about the time that Britain starts to formally negotiate withdrawal from the EU.
But here’s the rub: no formal negotiations with the UK can begin before it leaves the EU. If they began too soon, Australia and the UK would jeopardise both sets of negotiations and harden European attitudes. This should lead us to curb Abbott’s enthusiasm for a quick start to talks.
Anglosphere enthusiasts such as Abbott see a great potential in Brexit for a re-alignment of global politics that are a better ‘fit’ with history, culture and language. Having recanted his unlikely support for the UK remaining in the EU ahead of the June vote, Abbott now supports free movement of people between Australia and the UK, an idea floated by Boris Johnson when in Australia in 2014. This would be good news for Australian professionals, no doubt, but the popularity of free movement, so contentious in the UK itself, may not be high in Australia.
For sure, back-channel diplomacy and talks about talks are already underway, and not just between Australia and the UK. But in my view Australia can expect to be very close to the front of the queue when Britain is finally able to start formal negotiations when it comes out of the EU – sometime in 2019.
In the meantime, it is important not to drop the ball with the EU. First, Australia must not assume that all the action is in Asia. The growth of China, India and Indonesia is impressive, but the EU is still the third-largest economy in the world. The Australia-EU FTA has been many years in the making and this effort should not be squandered.
Admittedly, things have never been worse for the European Union in its 65-year history, yet even without the UK the EU remains a serious prospect. Lest we think that all the gloom resides in a fracturing EU, let’s remember that the prospects for the United Kingdom are not all that secure either.
Brexit will undoubtedly revitalise a vibrant and long-standing relationship with the UK. But it opens up opportunities for the EU too, and this is to Australia’s advantage. Just not all the action will be in Asia, not all the action in Europe will be in the UK.
It's time for Australia to make new friends in Europe. But haste is neither necessary nor desirable. Australia mustn’t, and indeed can’t, rush this.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency