London: Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has poured cold water on Britain’s aspirations to join the new TPP trade pact after Brexit, saying the group’s 11 members had more pressing priorities than seeking a new partner.
The UK was "some distance from the Pacific, the last time I checked", Birmingham said, in comments that will come as a blow to the UK government's post-Brexit plans.
In the past, Australia has made encouraging comments regarding the UK’s prospects as a future Trans-Pacific Partnership member.
And the UK government pinned its hopes on the prospect.
In July, Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament her so-called 'Chequers’ plan for Brexit had been designed with TPP membership in mind.
"One of the things we looked at was whether [Chequers] would enable us to join the TPP, and it would," May said.
The UK’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox had been "championing" the idea since he came into office, May said.
On Monday, at his meeting with Birmingham, Fox said the UK government "look forward to beginning the really big chapter which is the new free trade agreement between [the UK and Australia] and potential UK accession to CPTPP".
At the end of December, when the TPP came into force, Fox said if the UK joined the alliance it would boost export of Scotch whisky.
Last year, the UK government held a 14-week public consultation to "inform our future relationship with the countries that make up the CPTPP", foreshadowing that it could launch formal negotiations to accede to the group.
But Birmingham warned the UK they would find it slow going.
Last weekend, the issue of "interest from other parties to join the TPP" was a key topic of discussion at the first conference of TPP parties since the pact came into force.
"I would imagine there would be nations in the TPP family willing to engage [with potential new members]," Birmingham told an Australia-UK Chamber of Commerce breakfast in London on Monday.
"But I do think that from the feedback of the other TPP nations there is still a view of: let’s see the initial 11 [members] all get through their ratification process, all become party to it, let’s perhaps deal with some of the other nations of interest in the Pacific region.
"It is, after all, a trans-Pacific partnership. The UK is some distance from the Pacific the last time I checked, so [let's] deal with some of those local factors as well."
Birmingham said the TPP members were "well aware of the strong interest from the UK" in joining.
"But my sense is that it will be easier for the UK to be able to strike, initially, a bilateral agreement with Australia and possibly with other nations, than it would be to bypass that and simply [join] the TPP."
All 11 TPP members would have to agree if new members were to join the trade pact.
Speaking to media after the breakfast, Birmingham said "ultimately" Australia would be very welcoming to any country, including the UK, that wanted to join the TPP and "meets the standard of ambition that’s requires".
But, practically, a bilateral deal would be faster and more effective to conclude, he said.
Birmingham also repeatedly declined to echo Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s declaration earlier in January that it was the “wish of the whole world” that the UK avoid a no-deal Brexit.
He said Australia “would like to see as much certainty as possible” in the Brexit process, but did not want to dictate to the UK which path to take.
A no-deal Brexit could even have an “upside” for some Australian businesses, though others would “face challenges”, Birmingham said.
Fox said the public consultation ahead of Australia-UK trade talks had been “enormous” and very positive. Negotiations with Australia, New Zealand and the US would begin at the same time after the UK leaves the EU - as long as the final Brexit plan includes leaving the EU's customs union.