Trade Minister Don Farrell has asked his European counterparts to recognize Australia as a “major immigrant nation” and not force its producers to stop using terms like prosecco and feta.
In an interview from Berlin, Farrell said he hopes to conclude a free trade agreement with the European Union early in the new year because it has received “a very positive response in all the countries we’ve visited”.
But Farrell – who has also visited Paris and Brussels over the past two weeks – said Australia was not budging on a major sticking point: the EU’s desire to protect product names associated with specific geographic regions.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve made it clear that these are important issues for Australian producers,” he told Guardian Australia.
Farrell cited figures that one in four Australians was born overseas, and one in two was born to a father outside the country.
Many of the immigrants who came to Australia, of course, came from places like Greece and Italy. They brought their culture with them. They also brought their food with them.”
“They feel very attached to these products, and one of my jobs was to explain to Europeans how strongly our communities – our European communities – feel about the attachment to these products.”
Farrell said Australia did not believe geographical indications should be part of an EU free trade agreement. “We have not changed our position on that,” he said.
Asked if a deal was possible without giving Australia a floor on product names, Farrell said it was still “hypothetical” and that he would have a “better idea” after the next round of formal negotiations in February.
Farrell said he used his meetings in Europe to make the case for investing in critical minerals in Australia, such as those needed to produce batteries.
“Europeans understand that we would be a great source of those critical minerals that will decarbonize their economies – and that would be a very important feature of any free trade agreement,” he said.
“We want to add value to the products and we think we can use European investment and technology and get help to get those critical minerals out of the ground.”
The European Union is already Australia’s third largest trading partner, but Australian negotiators are pushing for greater market access for agricultural exports. Farrell invited the European Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, to visit Australia.
EU talks were postponed when the then Morrison government’s cancellation of the French submarine contract caused a diplomatic break with France.
Another long-running point of contention was the previous government’s refusal to commit to more ambitious climate policies, because the EU wants to include a strong commitment to the Paris Agreement in the free trade agreement.
Farrell said he detected, in Europe, “an audible sigh of relief that government has changed and that we are now on equal terms with them on important issues, but especially climate change, which has been raised everywhere I go”.
The chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, Pascal Canvin, has asserted that an Australian free trade agreement would be “forbidden” without including strong climate commitments.
Kanvin said the EU-New Zealand free trade agreement included a process for suspending tariff cuts if one side began to undermine the Paris agreement.
“It’s the kind of nuclear weapon you don’t want to use,” Kanvin told Guardian Australia.
“I don’t see how we can, in the European Parliament, find a majority to ratify any deal with Australia without such a climate clause, just as we did in New Zealand.”
Kanvin applauded the European Union’s move this week to introduce a world-leading “green tariff” on imports of products made with high emissions, including iron, steel, cement, fertilizer and aluminium.
The previous Morrison government had denounced the idea as a “new form of protectionism”, but Kanvin said it would level the playing field as Europe uses carbon pricing to achieve deeper emissions cuts.
Without a plan to adjust the EU’s carbon limits, he said, “you’re shooting yourself” with too much incentive to send jobs abroad.
Kanvin said the plan was fair because it would ensure that those who produce goods in the EU and those who import them from elsewhere will pay the same carbon price.
But he said the fees would not be applied for the first few years as part of a phased implementation period. While the European Union was the first in the world to adopt such a measure, Kanvin expected others to follow suit.
Farrell said the Australian government was still gathering information about the EU’s plans and that he would “much prefer to take a hard look at what’s been proposed” before making a final position.
He was due to return to Australia on Friday.