EU negotiators have laid the blame for the trade deal talks breakdown firmly at the door of the Australian trade minister following a last-minute collapse in talks over market access between the regions.
The negotiation, which has been ongoing since June 2018, almost reached a deal in July and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had recommitted the EU to the negotiation in her state of the union address in September, expecting a deal to be concluded by the end of the year.
The signals coming from Brussels ahead of the team heading to the G7 trade ministers meeting at the weekend in Japan were positive. It was expected that the European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis and his Australian counterpart Don Farrell would wrap up the deal in the margins of the summit.
Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski also traveled, a sure sign that negotiations were serious, as beef and lamb access to the EU were the main sticking points.
EU sources are saying that when they got to Japan, the Australian side rowed back on where the negotiations had reached between officials. They said that “the Australian side “re-tabled agricultural offers that did not reflect recent negotiations and the process between senior officials”.
There seems to be a feeling on the EU side that the Australian minister showed little flexibility and no doubt he was mindful of the Australian farming and industry statement released last week ahead of the Japan meeting, warning against a deal that didn’t give the level of access to the EU market that they wanted.
The National Farmers Federation was particularly blunt, warning Minister Farrell about their “grave concerns that Minister Farrell is headed to Osaka with his signing pen at the ready”. In an indication that they had an inkling of where officials had got to at that point, added: “Everything we’ve seen so far would actually send parts of our sector backwards.”
The Australian view is that the EU hasn't come near offering the level of access it wanted for beef and sheep meat, and they also have issues with EU geographic indicators (GIs), which would restrict Australian description of products, such as prosecco and feta cheese.
Unless there is a quick change of heart it looks like the negotiations will enter a prolonged period of stalemate. EU elections and appointment of a new Commission will take place in 2024, and Australian elections are due in 2025. Trade deals rarely get concluded during elections seasons and that means that it could be late 2025 or even 2026 when negotiators get back to the point they were at last week.
On the other hand, the negotiations have been ongoing for more than five years at this point, and the sticking points are well known and understood. If, at this time of global political turbulence, the EU and Australia decided that they want the deal to happen, it could happen very quickly, but it would mean that either EU or Australian farmers would be left disappointed with the level of access Australian beef and sheep meat had secured to the EU market.