‘Embarrassing’ plans for ‘Empire 2.0’

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Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon warns the “sheer intransigence” of the British government over its handling of its exit from the European Union could drive her country into a second bid for independence. Joanna Webster reports.

Commonwealth Ministers will meet in London this week to talk about free-trade deals post Brexit. Picture: AFP/Chris J Ratcliffe


AUSTRALIAN Trade Minister Steven Ciobo has denied the meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers in London is about creating an ‘Empire 2.0’ and said the government has taken “concrete strides” towards a free-trade agreement with Britain.

Speaking after talks with UK Secretary for Trade Liam Fox, Mr Ciobo said he raised the issue of greater visa access for Australians in the UK but acknowledged there was a “diversity of views” as to the best way forward post-Brexit.

“We are absolutely focused on being as ambitious as we can in relation to trade. We want to open up export markets, we want to open up investment,” he said.

“There is absolutely nothing here that is about opening up some kind of new empire or anything like that. This is about bringing countries together at various stages of development to talk about the importance of having a strong commitment to liberalising trade and investment because that drives growth and it drives employment in every single country.”

It comes after plans for the inaugural meeting of 35 trade ministers from around the Commonwealth was criticised by UK politicians and dubbed “Empire 2.0” by civil servants.

Former Treasury Minister Lord O’Neill of Gatley said it was “embarrassing” for the UK to be vaunting deals with the likes of New Zealand when it should be going after Brazil, India, China and Russia.

“Greece is bigger than New Zealand, banging on about a free trade deal with New Zealand is going to make zero difference to Britain’s future in terms of trade,” he said.

Scottish National Party Politician Alyn Smith called the plans “delusional nonsense” earlier this week, saying “A narrow Leave vote enabled this delusional nonsense to move from lunatic fringe to UK Government policy.”

Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf also said: “My ancestors fought against [the] British Empire in the Commonwealth. I suspect no-one wants a return to it. The Empire is dead, let it go folks.”

However its supporters say the line is simply being used to “kill an interesting idea,” according to UKIP spokesman Gaway Towler.

British Prime Minister, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 before the end of March. Picture: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

British Prime Minister, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 before the end of March. Picture: AP Photo/Matt DunhamSource:AP

Mr Ciobo said the Australian government had already made progress during a working group with UK representatives designed to frame the terms of a potential deal. However the offer of ‘lending’ Australian negotiators had not been taken up.

Australia expects to be able to sign a free trade deal with the European Union and Indonesia before one with the UK is completed. Mr Ciobo will head to Chile next week to try and salvage a plan from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the first meeting of all members since President Trump signed an executive order pulling the US out of the deal.

The UK Royal Commonwealth Society’s policy director Tim Hewish said the meeting is the first step of the journey which could see greater trade and visa access for Commonwealth members in the UK.

“It’s also about Commonwealth more broadly and what they can get out of it, not just with Britain but with each other,” he said.

A recent survey of businesses quizzed by the organisation found 90 per cent think Australia should be a top priority for a free trade deal.

Canada and Singapore were the second priority followed by New Zealand, India, South Africa and Malaysia. Previous studies also indicated support for freedom of movement between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

London Business school professor Linda Yueh said it’s worth “reactivating” longstanding trade relationships with the UK which can be done quickly.

“As smaller economies than the US, China, and EU, it may be possible to conclude trade deals more quickly with these Commonwealth nations and allow Britain to gain the benefits of trade as well as notch up more practical experience in negotiating deals before it tackles the biggest countries in the world,” she said.

Victoria.craw@news.com.au

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