Trading Partners Wanted: looking at Australia

As it stands, Ireland’s largest trading partner is the United Kingdom. This has been the case since Independence although the balance has shifted greatly since Ireland entered the EEC in 1973 with the UK no longer wholly dominate although our reliance on the UK in certain sectors such as beef, timber, pork and much more.

As Ireland’s reliance on the UK as a trading partner has diminished, it has been able to look to a wider market largely thanks to membership of the EU both in terms of exporting to EU Member States as well as using EU trade deals to export to third parties.

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, made official two week’s ago by the triggering of Article 50, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US with a far more protectionist outlook; Ireland must now use its EU membership to develop new markets and make the most of trade deals.

In the third of my series of articles, I thought I would use it to look at opportunities for Ireland to do business with Australia, a country that is very familiar to many Irish people and indeed one that has the highest percentage population of Irish descent outside of Ireland.

In a sporting context, Ireland has an excellent partnership with its Australian counterparts in rugby, having played each other in 33 recognised tests, not to mention tours by the British and Irish Lions. The GAA and AFL also combine to stage International Rules matches. Additionally Ireland and Australia regularly compete against each other in cricket, hockey, football and Irish horses regularly compete in famous Australian races such as the Melbourne Cup.

Ireland and Australia have a shared history. Many Irish nationals migrated to Australia following the outbreak of famine in Ireland in 1845 with that figure reaching 300,000 by 1914.

Currently bilateral relations between Ireland and Australia are excellent. Both countries opened resident Embassies in 1946 while Ireland opened a Consulate General in Sydney in 2000.

Neale pictured with Australian rugby captain Stephen Moore, originally from Tuam, Co. Galway, at a reception hosted by the Irish – Australian Chamber of Commerce in advance of the Ireland v Australia rugby match in November.

The Irish Embassy works to facilitate and support existing connections and helps to foster new ones. High-level visits, such as those made by Ministers for St. Patrick’s Day-related engagements, as well as trade and economic missions, cultural events and Irish-Australian community-led initiatives, all offer opportunities to reinforce and expand these enormously important ties.

The Irish Embassy in Canberra and the Consulate General in Sydney work closely with the Irish State Agencies located in Australia: Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, and Tourism Ireland. These Irish State agencies form part of our Local Market Team. The Ambassador chairs the Local Market Team whose members work together to maximise opportunities for Irish business interests by:

  • Supporting Irish companies who want to access the Australian market.
  • Providing general advice on doing business locally and, through our network of contacts, pursue opportunities that will benefit Ireland.
  • Working to secure market access for Irish products in key sectors.
  • Promoting Ireland as a location for tourism and for investment.

They also work closely with Irish Business Networks such as the Irish Australia Chamber of Commerce, the Lansdowne Club, and the Ireland Western Australia Forum to promote Irish business and economic interests through key contacts and business links.

In a recent speech, Australia’s minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop said it’s her government’s priority to focus on a trade agreement with the EU, and expressed concerns about the current tide of economic nationalism taking hold in certain parts of the world.

The deputy leader of the Liberal Party was recently in Dublin conducting bilateral meetings with her Irish counterpart Charlie Flanagan, as well as the Irish-Australian Chamber of Commerce.

Ms Bishop said “Our priority is to conclude a free trade agreement with the European Union”,

“And we see Ireland as a great opportunity for us to work with countries of the EU, through Ireland.”

Much of the economic argument behind the push to leave the EU in Britain was the notion that the UK could be free to do its own bilateral trade deals, without Europe having a say over how trade is conducted. The UK is not free to engage in any official trade negotiations until Brexit divorce negotiations are concluded, and it is no longer a member of the EU.

The Irish – Australian Chamber of Commerce was formed in the 1980’s by a group of Irish business people based in Australia with the aim of providing structure and support for their peers at a local, national and international level. With a range of events across Australia and Ireland, the Chamber plays an important role in developing and fostering business links between the two countries and the wider EU.

The relationship between what is now the EU and Australia has evolved over 55 years. This started as a predominantly economic partnership to a politically strategic one, focussing more on foreign and security issues, both at the bilateral and the multilateral level.

The current bilateral relationship is based on a political declaration, the Partnership Framework, agreed in 2008. However, negotiations on a legally binding Framework Agreement were concluded by the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, and Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, at their meeting in Brussels in April 2015.

In September 2016, the EU High Representative and the Foreign Minister launched the EU-Australia Leadership Forum. This project will provide a platform for leaders, aspiring and emerging leaders of all ages from the fields of business, media, non-governmental organisations, civil society, think tanks, politics and academia from both countries to collaborate on new ideas to promote and enhance the relationship between the European Union and Australia. The Leadership Forum will comprise a series of high profile leadership events, sectoral policy workshops, meetings of emerging leaders, publications and media engagements.

The EU and Australia are like-minded partners on international human rights issues such as the abolition of the Death Penalty, and they are both strong supporters of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Australia–EU Partnership Framework currently sets out the direction of bilateral cooperation. The Framework was launched during Australia–EU Ministerial Consultations in Paris in 2008. It outlines specific cooperative activities and is designed to be revised regularly. The first revision was done in October 2009, and provides an updated focus on practical cooperation in the following areas:

  • Shared foreign policy and global security interests
  • The multilateral rules-based trading system and the bilateral trade and investment relationship
  • The Asia–Pacific region
  • Energy issues, climate change, fisheries and forestry
  • Science, research, technology and innovation, education and culture and facilitating the movement of people.

The European Union and Australia have a mature and healthy bilateral trade relationship as well as a shared commitment to a multilateral trade regime.

Australia is an important economic and trading partner for the European Union. In 2015, it ranked as the 20th largest partner of the EU for trade in goods. Total trade in goods amounted to €41 billion in 2015 (EU imports €9.5 billion, EU exports €31.5 billion). In 2015-16 (July-June), the EU was Australia’s second-largest trade in goods partner, representing 13% of Australia’s merchandise trade. The EU is Australia’s largest services trade partner, being the largest market for Australia’s services exports and largest source of its services imports.

While Australia is an obvious gateway into the entire region for Irish businesses, it is also a natural trading partner with similar tastes and demands of the Irish market. The UK is an obvious, easy market, for Ireland not just because of proximity but also the aforementioned similarity in tastes and demands. Any possible decline in partnership with the UK post Brexit can be offset somewhat with increased activity with Australian partners.

We will never have a better trading partner than the UK nor will we ever replace it’s preeminent role in Irish commerce but it is vital that we look to develop new markets and the obvious first ports of call must be those closest to home with the easiest levels of access.

Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann.