The UK and Australia have started a trade working group to fast-track negotiations between the two countries once the UK leaves the European Union.
The working group will meet twice a year and “focus on scoping out the parameters of a future ambitious and comprehensive Australia-UK free trade agreement,” the UK’s Department for International Trade said in a statement.
The first meeting will take place in Australia next year but no formal agreement can be signed until after the UK has negotiated its exit from the EU.
At the earliest, this would be in 2019. The UK is expected to trigger Article 50, which sets a two year time limit on exit negotiations with the EU, sometime next year.
Steven Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “My formal advice is that, and this is from the UK side, the UK is unable to negotiate or sign an agreement prior to the formal exit from the EU.
“We can certainly have preliminary discussions and that’s part of what I’m doing here this week. Preliminary discussions around what a post-Brexit Australia-UK trade deal might look like,” Ciobo said.
The department of Liam Fox, the UK’s trade secretary, said the working group represents “a strong political commitment by Australia and the UK to take a leadership role in advocating for global trade liberalisation and reform.”
The UK government is yet to outline the terms of its negotiation with the EU on its exit. Prime Minister Theresa May is said to be keeping an “open mind” on how to approach deals on immigration and access to the EU’s single market.
May’s spokeswoman told Reuters: “The prime minister has set out that we are going to need to be able address people’s concerns about migration within the European Union and get the best possible deal in trade and services and now work is under way. She is approaching that with an open mind.”