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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Morrison vies with Trump for first post-Brexit trade deal with UK

On Sunday Morrison said as soon as the UK had resolved its relationship with the EU, Australia would be “quick off the mark” for a trade deal.


“It will be very much also in [the UK’s] interest to be able to conclude arrangements with countries like Australia as quickly as possible,” he said, tacitly acknowledging that Australia will be on a long list of trade deals the UK would want to sign in a hurry in the case of a no-deal Brexit, with the US likely the UK’s top priority.

After the meeting on Monday Morrison told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he and Johnson had agreed they could get “some real momentum” on a trade deal.

“We agreed we wanted to get to the starting line as soon as possible … there is a lot of low-hanging fruit we can move very quickly on,” Morrison said. But they had not discussed particular aspects or sectors of a potential deal, which Morrison said he was “happy to leave to the process”.

Morrison acknowledged the US would “kick off very quickly too” in trade negotiations, thanks to the close relationship between Johnson and US President Donald Trump, but said Australia had more experience in getting such deals to the finish line quickly.

G7 leaders at a working session on World Economy and Trade.Credit:AP

The pair also discussed Australia joining the US in its mission to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, and Morrison said Johnson was “very excited” about the prospects for greater cooperation between the UK and Australia on space exploration, thanks to Australia’s new space agency.

Morrison said Johnson had not mentioned whether he would face an election this year, but tipped he “would be very formidable”. And Johnson said the third Ashes test match thriller the day before was a “hell of a game” of cricket but added “we’ve got two to go. We’re not taking anything for granted.”

He had been similarly cautious about a potential post-Brexit trade deal with the US. Johnson emerged from a meeting with Trump on Sunday apparently already at odds on the details and timing of their deal, but “gung-ho” on the prospects. The US President said “we’re going to do a very big trade deal [with the UK], bigger than we’ve ever had” after Britain cast off the “anchor” of its European Union membership. Johnson warned it would not be “plain sailing” and raised some UK demands such as the ability to sell British lamb in the US, and the right of British ships to take freight between American ports.

He later told ITV: “There’s an opportunity to do a great free trade deal with the United States. The president is very gung-ho about that and so am I.” But he added that “I don’t think people realise quite how protectionist” the US market could be. “They want to do it within a year, I’d love to do it within a year, but that’s a very fast timetable,” he said.

And while Trump proposed doing the deal in a series of “fantastic mini-deals, we’re talking about many different deals but we’re having a good time” the UK would prefer one comprehensive deal. The UK-US deal could also have trouble passing the US House of Representatives if Brexit is seen to have put peace in Ireland at risk.

The good-natured exchange was typical of this year’s G7 at the deluxe Atlantic coast resort town: significant policy differences but equally strong protestations of friendship between the world’s most powerful democratic leaders. Organisers had feared it would degenerate into a “G6 plus one” with Trump at odds with his colleagues.

But in the first day and a half of the summit French President Emmanuel Macron had played a masterful role – as much maitre-d’ as host – with the aim of keeping the meeting from degenerating into the sniping that undermined the 2018 G7 in Canada.

There was plenty for the leaders to disagree over – Iran, the Amazon, trade, Russia – and there was evidence those disagreements largely went unresolved. At the time of writing there was still no sign of a joint communique for all seven leaders to sign, and European leaders had strongly rejected Trump’s suggestion Russia might join them in 2020 – though there was progress on an aid package for the Amazon fires.

What happened behind closed doors could have been a different story, but in public Macron was seen constantly flattering, cajoling and smoothing over cracks. Reportedly he had prepared for the meeting with FBI-style “profiling” of the leaders to judge his approach: some pally clowning with Johnson, formality and deference with Angela Merkel, praise for Trump.

By Monday morning his only misfire had been an attempt to engineer an Iran-US detente by inviting Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a surprise visit on Sunday. The other leaders pushed back and declined to literally cross the road to meet Zarif, but Macron had carefully manoeuvred so nobody got a diplomatic black eye and could blame the awkwardness on their over-eager host.

Morrison was taken by surprise by the gambit, a week after he announced Australia would join a US-led a coalition protecting oil tankers and cargo ships from attack by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, providing surveillance aircraft and a navy frigate, as well as specialist personnel to join the mission’s Bahrain headquarters.

On Sunday Morrison said he stressed in meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Australia’s role did not mean it was backing out of its support for the Iran nuclear deal, which the US has abandoned in favour of a “maximum pressure” policy against the Middle Eastern state.

“It’s about simply ensuring that there can be free passage of shipping through that important part of the world which directly impacts on Australia’s oil requirements,” Morrison said.

He said there was “no concern at all” about the move from Germany or Japan and they had a “great respect” for Australia’s “well-targeted” policy.

Morrison also held a 20-minute meeting with Trump, during which he expressed hope the US and China would resolve their escalating trade war which was having a broader impact on the global economy.

But he declined to pick a side saying “it’s for both of those countries to sort those issues out and come to an agreement”.

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age