Tariff-free deal with Australia a ‘betrayal’ of British farmers

A free-trade deal allowing Australia tariff-free imports on beef, lamb and sugar would “betray” repeated government pledges to back British farmers, Boris Johnson has been warned.

NFU president Minette Batters said the prime minister had given her his personal assurances that he would protect farmers in all trade agreements during a visit to the Fairfax family’s Peak District farm on 23 April.

Although Mrs Batters said the NFU was fully behind “constructive” liberalisation of global trade, signing a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Australia would be an “absolute betrayal” of British farmers by the UK government, she told a farming press briefing on Tuesday 18 May.

See also: Trade and farm policy enter new era outside the EU

Mrs Batters said striking an FTA with Australia – the first big post-Brexit trade deal – would “set a precedent” that would be “extremely worrying” in the context of signing future trade deals with New Zealand, Canada and the US.

Can’t compete

Taking the example of the beef industry, Mrs Batters said the average suckler beef herd size in Britain was 30 cows and farmers would not be able to compete with large-scale Australian farmers with their massive feedlots and ranches.

NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy said Scottish farmers were very concerned by the prospect of rushing through a trade deal with Australia without the proper scrutiny of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, as promised by government.

NFU Cymru president John Davies said UK farmers want to lead the way in climate-friendly food production.

But there was “very little point” in the UK exporting our net-zero ambitions by allowing in food imports produced to lower standards.

According to the Financial Times, a “ferocious” battle is going on between Defra and the Department for International Trade over the terms of the post-Brexit agreement.

Trade secretary Liz Truss is “in a sprint” to conclude negotiations by June, ahead of the G7 summit, being hosted by the UK in Cornwall, which Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison is invited to attend.

But Ms Truss has reportedly faced opposition from Defra secretary George Eustice and cabinet office minister Michael Gove over a UK-Australia FTA.

Ditch the deal

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday 19 May, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford urged Mr Johnson to think again and “ditch a deal that would send our farmers down under”.

But Mr Johnson told Mr Blackford that he “grossly underestimated” the farming industry’s ability “to make the most from free trade”.

“This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade, on exporting around the world,” said the prime minister.

“Our food exports are second to none. He [Mr Blackford] should be proud of that.

“And all he does is call for us to pull up the drawbridge to go back into the EU to be run by Brussels.”