Johnson Leaves U.K. Door Open to Australian Tariff-Free Food

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson left open the prospect of a trade deal with Australia that removes tariffs on food, despite warnings that British farmers could be put out of business by cheaper imports.

The prime minister was asked by Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament on Wednesday to rule out eliminating tariffs on meat. He twice declined to do so, instead citing the “great things” U.K. farmers could do with Britain’s free trade deals.

“Why is he so frightened of free trade?” Johnson asked Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party. “There’s a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the U.K. and he should seize it.”

The prime minister’s answers will add fuel to reports that he’s preparing to back a deal with Australia that provides tariff-free access to U.K. food markets. Britain’s National Farmers’ Union has warned that many farms would face ruin if they have to compete with zero-tariff imports of beef and lamb.

“This deal would be the final nail in the coffin for many Scottish crofters and farmers,” Blackford said. “Farmers will lose their livelihoods, rural businesses will collapse and ultimately families will be driven off the land.”

Making Progress

Johnson batted down a similar question from Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams, declining to “permanently” rule out tariff-free access for Australian lamb and beef imports. The premier’s spokesman, Max Blain, later told reporters that British agriculture will be protected in any new trade deals.

“We want to secure an ambitious deal that benefits businesses and consumers across the U.K.,” Blain said. “Of course any agreement will include protections for the agriculture industry and won’t undercut U.K. farmers.”

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 could boost GDP by 0.02% over 15 years, according to a British government assessment.

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. 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.

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