Boris Johnson is willing to provide Australia tariff-free access to UK food markets despite fears it could ‘decimate’ the rural economy.
Farmers launched a furious backlash yesterday against the proposal to grant Australian produce privileged access, fearing it would mean British farmers with high welfare standards will struggle to compete.
The plan to give Australian food exporters the same terms as the European Union could potentially ‘wipe out’ agriculture if the terms are replicated in other agreements, the PM has been warned.
Mr Eustice is against the move because of the damage cheap Australian lamb and beef imports could do to domestic farmers, but allies of Ms Truss insist a deal would not damage the farming industry due to the size of the market and its location.
Ms Truss is believed to have the backing of Mr Johnson, who is eager in principle for a comprehensive agreement to be reached as soon as next month, The Times reports.
A government source said: ‘There is worry across Whitehall about the principle of liberalisation and the precedent it will set. What we agree with Australia is likely to become a template for our negotiations with other countries and in particular America.’
Boris Johnson is willing to provide Australia tariff-free access to UK food markets despite fears it could ‘decimate’ the rural economy
The Cabinet is also divided, with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss facing stiff opposition to the plans from Environment Secretary George Eustice
Ministers are expected to meet tomorrow to discuss the removal of tariffs on agri-food.
A Whitehall source said: ‘This is a fundamental argument about the nature of global Britain.
Last night the National Farmers’ Union said it would be a ‘complete betrayal’ if the Prime Minister signs a zero tariff deal. Do we want to seize the benefits of Brexit and strike advanced trade deals, or pull up the drawbridge?
‘At the moment we’re giving preferential trade terms to the EU, so why shouldn’t our Australian cousins get something similar. It’s a smaller market with high standards, more than 9,000 miles away.’
Ulster Farmers’ Union president Victor Chestnutt warned that ‘what is given away in this trade deal will be expected in the other trade deals’.
He added: ‘Therefore the cumulative effect of these trade deals could actually wipe out agriculture as we know it.
‘We need the Government to listen to our concerns and indeed to work with tariffs and tariff quotas, not to decimate the rural economy.’
But a Government source said last night: ‘The deal will include a host of protections for farmers, including a transition period of at least a decade.’
George Eustice and Liz Truss are locked in an ‘absolutely ferocious’ row over the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with Australia amid fears it could result in the ‘slow death of British farming’
Downing Street insisted yesterday that any agreement will ‘include protections for the agriculture industry and won’t undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards’.
Mr Eustice said the UK was ‘very keen’ to get a deal but added: ‘There’s a balance to be struck between your commercial interests and your desire to open up free markets.’
Downing Street moved to assuage concerns yesterday afternoon as it said any deal ‘will include protections for the agriculture industry and won’t undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards’.
The UK and Australia are aiming to have finalised the broad terms of the trade deal by June, ahead of Australian PM Scott Morrison attending the G7 summit in Cornwall as a guest.
Mr Eustice would not be drawn on the row yesterday, telling Sky News: ‘We think there’s great opportunities, we’re very keen for instance to pursue trade agreements with Australia and also with the United States and with other countries as well.
‘But always in any trade agreement, yes there’s a balance to be struck between your commercial interests and your desire to open up free markets.’
Asked if zero-tariff access to the UK market for Australian farmers could harm the interests of domestic farmers, Mr Eustice said: ‘There are huge amounts of things that a country like Australia produces that are currently subject to tariffs because that is what we had in the European Union but where actually we are not even a producer and we can offer them tariff-free access in those areas, everything from nectarines to almond nuts where they are a big producer, and also of course, wine.’
UK farmers fear they would not be able to compete with large-scale Australian cattle ranches. Cattle at auction are pictured in Dalby west of Brisbane in 2013
Emily Thornberry, shadow international trade secretary, said: ‘It’s perfectly normal that the Australian government should try to get the best possible deal for its agricultural mega-corporations.
‘But British family farmers have a right to expect that Liz Truss will do the same for them, not sell out their livelihoods for the price of a quick trade deal, and a cheap headline at the G7 summit.’
UK agriculture bosses have pointed out that cattle and sheep farming in Australia is often carried out on a much larger scale than in Britain – and to different standards.
For example, the average beef herd size in the UK is between 28 to 50 cows, according to the National Farmers’ Union.
But a 2016 report published by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found that in northern Australia average herd size was 1,576 per farm.
The total number of sheep and lambs in the UK in 2015 was estimated at just over 33million while the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the number at 64million for Australian farms in June 2020.
The UK Farming Roundtable, which consists of 19 farming bodies from across the UK, has urged the Government to ‘stand up for UK farmers in all of its negotiations’.