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Australia says it can ‘trust’ UK on trade pact

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Australia’s Trade Minister Dan Tehan said on Wednesday his government trusts Britain to uphold their new trade pact despite London now wanting to renegotiate part of its Brexit treaty with the EU.

He also emphasised that Canberra wants to smooth things over with Paris after the AUKUS row that saw France react furiously when its contract to supply submarines to Australia was torn up in favour of American-designed nuclear ones.

And Tehan — also Australia’s minister for tourism — reaffirmed his country’s plans to finally reopen international borders to Australians and their families abroad “before Christmas” as Covid-19 vaccinations accelerate.

Tehan spoke to AFP in an interview in Brussels, the penultimate leg of a international tour comprising official visits to Indonesia, India and the United Arab Emirates, then ministerial meetings at the OECD in France with G20 counterparts in Italy.

On Thursday, he is due in London to scrutinise and sign a 600-page Australian-British bilateral free trade agreement announced in June before he returns home.

– ‘Keen’ to speak to the French –

Asked if he believed London would stand by that trade accord given its remonstrations over the Northern Ireland part of its 2019 treaty with the EU formalising Brexit, Tehan stressed Australian-British historical ties.

“Well, of course we can trust the UK on its treaties and we will continue on negotiating in good faith with them,” he said.

“Obviously what the UK and the EU are going through, that’s very much a matter for them and I’ll leave the commentary on that for others. But when it comes to Australia and the UK, we’re dear friends, old friends.”

Tehan’s stop in Brussels was originally meant to include talks with European Commission officials on a free trade pact Australia wants with the European Union.

But the 12th round of those negotiations was postponed until next month, after France denounced what it saw as a “stab in the back” over AUKUS and the cancelled sub deal.

France has been cold-shouldering Canberra since that row.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has so far been unable to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron on the matter, and Tehan was likewise snubbed by his French trade counterpart when he was in Paris.

Tehan said it was “positive” that France’s ambassador to Australia was back after being recalled, along with France’s top envoy to the US, in September.

“We’ve made it very clear we’re very keen to sit down and engage with the French government, and we’ll do that with these very important issues that we need to continue to discuss — and the EU-Australia FTA is one of them,” he said.

Those talks were nearly at the “end-game” stage, he said, and he expected a pact could be agreed “hopefully by the end of next year”.

– COP26 summit –

A possible venue for Australia to get some face-time with European leaders on the trade and residual AUKUS issues is the COP26, a UN summit on containing climate change being held in Britain in two weeks’ time.

While Morrison has not committed to going, Tehan said that Australia’s leader “will make a decision over the coming days… but he is of a mind, I think, to want to attend”.

As for Australians abroad wanting to return or visit their country — a difficult feat currently given very limited flights, passenger caps and costly hotel quarantine — Tehan said he hoped they would be able to do so more freely from “around the end of November, beginning of December”.

The decision was tied to Australia’s vaccination rate against Covid, with the government aiming to ease travel restrictions when 80 percent of the population is fully immunised.

Currently, around 52 percent of Australia’s residents have had two jabs, but the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria have higher figures.

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