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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing to get a trade deal with Australia over the line, amid warnings from farmers that cheaper imports could put them out of business.
Johnson is preparing to offer Australia tariff-free access to U.K. food markets as talks continue within the government over the deal, The Times newspaper reported Wednesday.
That is despite concerns from Britain’s National Farmers’ Union that many farms would face ruin if they have to compete with zero-tariff imports of beef and lamb. Johnson’s office declined to comment on the report, saying negotiations were ongoing.
Britain and Australia agreed the bulk of a free-trade agreement in April and have signaled they want to conclude the pact by the G-7 summit in June.
Any agreement will “include protection for the agriculture industry and won’t undercut U.K. farmers,” Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain told reporters Tuesday.
National Farmers’ Union President Minette Batters said in a statement that the government “must recognize that opening up zero tariff trade on all imports of products such as beef and lamb means British farming, working to its current high standards, will struggle to compete.”
“Will it watch family farms go out of business when they are unable to compete?” she added.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News there was a “balance to be struck between your commercial interests and your desire to open up new markets.”
A trade deal with Australia is one of the government’s key post-Brexit targets, alongside ongoing negotiations with the U.S. and New Zealand. A deal between the U.K. and Australia is expected to boost Britain’s GDP by 0.02% over 15 years, according to a British government assessment.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan on Wednesday said the nations were making “good progress” in their FTA negotiations.
“We are now meeting every week in a sprint to have an in-principle agreement by the end of June,” Tehan said in an emailed statement sent in response to a request for comment. He declined to comment on the details of the negotiations.
Eustice said his department is considering ways to protect sensitive sectors during the negotiations, such as having tariff-rate quotas on certain goods. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is said to favor a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal similar to Britain’s accord with the EU, according to a report in the Financial Times.
The Department for International Trade said in a statement that a deal would be a step toward joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, an 11-country pact including Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, which would “allow U.K. farmers even greater access to growing consumer markets in Asia.”
Separately, the U.K. government said it will soon start talks to improve upon the roll-over post-Brexit trade deals it signed with Canada and Mexico.
— With assistance by Jason Scott