Export drive as Australia tests fragile UK politics

Australia is on its (quad) bike to grow red meat sales in Britain as Brexit threatens trade

UK political uncertainty has pushed Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) to fire the starter gun on non-EU countries clambering to expand market access in Britain, as the country moves towards Brexit.

Trade body MLA will drive forward a major campaign to increase non-discriminatory market access for Australian beef and lamb exports to the UK.

The organisation will boost its presence in the UK capital, London, add more jobs to its market access team and intensify cooperation with the Australian government.

The trade body wants better quotas and tariffs for red meat exports. Currently, Australian firms exporting meat to the UK – and the EU – have a tiny volume quota and face a 20% duty – something MLA managing director Richard Norton has called a “source of frustration”.

Brexit uncertainty

Australia, one of the world’s largest red meat exporters, accounts for around 6% of the red meat imported by the UK. Britain is not a self-sufficient red meat producer and last year relied on 250,000 tonnes (t) of imported beef and 90,000t of sheepmeat to satisfy consumer demand, according to MLA.

The organisation’s announcement comes with the British government in a state of flux: UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election for early June, compounding the political sabre-rattling and acrimony created by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Details of a disastrous Brexit dinner between Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker were leaked last week. It highlighted how Juncker does not believe a trade deal can be achieved within the two year timeframe of Article 50, threatening meat trade between the UK and Europe.

Trade ‘urgency’

MLA’s Norton said the “political developments” in the UK added “urgency” to enhance Australia’s trade ambitions as the UK’s new trade policy, including quotas and tariffs, may be set in the next six months.

A continuation of the current trade arrangement and system of preferential quota allocations is untenable in a post-Brexit world,” Norton said in a press statement.

We feel strongly that now is the right time to rebalance the trading disparities Australia has faced in the region for the past 45 years.

Norton played down fears Australia wanted to “flood” the UK market with red meat. Australia’s high exchange rates, higher manufacturing costs and its range of global markets means the country is not in a position to do such a thing.

MLA also stressed it will not be pursuing UK market expansion over the EU, as talks over a free trade agreement between Australia and the EU are ongoing.

Ireland is currently the largest supplier of beef to Britain, which imported over 140,000t of fresh beef in the 12 months to February 2017, according to World Trade Stats.

When asked if MLA’s market access plans for beef would put pressure on Ireland, a spokesperson for levy body Bord Bía declined to comment.

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