Last week, Le Courrier Australien spoke with Jason Collins; the recently appointed Honorary Consul-General of Belgium, and the CEO of the European-Australian Business Council (EABC.) It was a good opportunity to talk about Jason’s hopes and plans for the future of the Australian-European trade partnerships, and the current Free Trade Agreement underway.
LCANews: Where does your involvement in European affairs come from? Why is the EU important?
Jason: I am a passionate Europhile, and believer in the European project. One doesn’t need to know much history to know the centuries of conflict and devastation that has been the history of Europe prior to the European Union. The EU is often criticised for being too idealistic and not realistic enough, but I think this is its strength. The EU is about finding ways of bringing people together and finding common ground to tackle issues like climate change, to make a more prosperous and inclusive society. To work together to bring other regions of the world that haven’t been as fortunate, and to work together as a way to lift up other people. Its vision is an inspiring one to me.
LCANews: We can see that you are very enthusiastic about Europe: Is it why you became the CEO of the EABC? What is the EABC’S mission?
Absolutely, no question. Whether it be through Australian society, Australian economic development or Australia’s role in the world, the partnership between Australia and Europe is absolutely fundamental. That’s not to the exclusion of Asia or the US, but nor does it have to be. Australia has an immense social, economic, and political relationship with Europe. What’s critically important is that we fully recognise and promote that relationship notwithstanding how old and well-established it is. We also recognise that there is a huge amount of depth and capacity left to increase the relationship with Europe- whether it be trade, investment, or technology- you name it.
We haven’t exhausted areas of potential collaboration with Europe. When we look at global policy making that impacts on business, there are hugely important conversations happening in Brussels which impact on Australian business- whether it be GDPR, social environmental standards or the trade agreement which is currently being negotiated between Australia and the EU at the moment. Australia needs to be as close and as connected as possible to the EU to ensure we are all moving forward in the same direction.
LCANews: You briefly mentioned the Trade Agreement- Let’s talk about it. When do you think we can reach an agreement? Why does Australia need this agreement, and what are the problematics of this agreement for Europe and Australia?
We should be very optimistic about the EU-Australia- Free Trade Agreement. It was first launched three and a half years ago, so it’s relatively recent compared to the length of time most other agreements have taken. Australia should take part because despite COVID, the negotiations have moved forward very substantially, and despite the difficulties, the negotiators have been able to meet online and maintain a positive momentum, and we hope for the FTA to be completed in 2022.
Negotiations between the EU and any other country are bound to be very complex, because they are being carried out on behalf of 27 member states of the EU. The chief negotiators are in regular contact and the next round of negotiations are scheduled for February next year. Much of what happens in an FTA negotiation is very technical, and this is the case for the current one. This will be the most comprehensive, ambitious, and wide-ranging FTA that Australia has ever done, revolving around cooperation on a whole range of things that are not simply about Tariffs. It will be transformational for Australia’s relationship with the European Union, but also, the EU sees advantage for itself to have this deal with Australia, because we are operating with a large number of countries that have other FTAs now. With Australia being a key player in the Indo-pacific region, this agreement is important to both sides for many reasons. So, I think that gives us ground to be optimistic that we will see a deal that we hope will be concluded by next year. At the same time, this is not a symbolic deal. It is one with substance, so one that will take time to achieve.
LCANews: Is the recent failed Submarine deal between Australia and France a major point in this negotiation, especially knowing that France will be the EU president for the next 6 months?
It is unquestionably vital that the Australian government makes every effort to repair its relationship with France. Ultimately, decisions around national security and what defense programs it has is an assessment made by the Australian government, but that said, partnerships between countries must be deeply respected and disagreements or changes in the way we work with other countries must be done with extreme sensitivity and good will. It is vital that the situation between Australia and France be repaired as soon as possible. And as a business organisation, the EABC has urged the Australian government to find a new path for this relationship. Ultimately, the FTA between Australia and the EU serves the interests of both sides in every respect, and all of it needs Australia and Europe to be working more closely together.
A Free Trade Agreement is a framework through which countries can cooperate together. So, whilst recognising the situation as one that has occurred at a governmental level between Australia and France, we recognise that the FTA is a vital piece of work for Australia and France and Australia and Europe. We need to move forward with this, and we mustn’t lose sight of how extensive the Franco-Australian interests are.