British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is in town today, just over a year since his political career peaked… and then wobbled off into a grey zone of indecision. Yes, Johnson did front successfully for Brexit and he did help to rid British politics of David Cameron. But Johnson then went missing in action during the subsequent Conservative Party leadership contest, which eventually came down to a battle between Andrea Leadsom (who?) and Theresa May. His embarrassing early forays into Europe as Foreign Secretary have only underlined Johnson’s reputation as a gadfly and political lightweight.
Currently, Johnson is touring the former colonies, talking up the historical ties. Meanwhile, his colleagues have been contemplating if and when they’ll replace Theresa May with Brexit Minister David Davis. A challenge is now not expected before autumn. Somehow, Johnson remains in the picture. A very recent Yougov poll of over 1,000 Conservative Party members showed that Johnson was not all that far behind Davis, in what is still a fairly open field:
The survey….shows that 21% of members backed Davis, 17% backed Johnson and 26% did not know or opted not to choose any candidate. Party members are reluctant for May to stand down now – with 71% backing her to stay and 22% saying she should quit.
So for this week at least, New Zealand has to treat Johnson seriously as a visitor, yet with no assurance that he will be in a position in future to influence anything he says here. Much the same caveats surrounded the recent visit by Johnson’s American counterpart Rex Tillerson, who breezed through Wellington a couple of months ago offering similar compliments, even though everyone involved knew that no one in the White House really listens to what the current Secretary of State has to say on any subject. Johnson is not quite as isolated a figure as Tillerson. Yet the key decisions on Brexit and its aftermath – ie. the trade deals, the terms and conditions of immigration policy – are likely to be made by people other than Boris Johnson.
This morning, Johnson is meeting with our own Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee and PM Bill English. Supposedly, they will have been talking about (a) about the terms and conditions for Kiwis wishing to live and work in Britain, post Brexit and (b) about a possible free trade deal with Britain, post Brexit. On trade, Johnson has been saying that New Zealand is ‘at or near the front of the queue’for a trade deal with Britain, post Brexit.
Funnily enough, that is exactly how Australia was being described when Aussie PM Malcolm Turnbull was in London only a fortnight ago. ‘Front of the queue’blared the Sun newspaper headline about the Aussies, and British PM Theresa May echoed that sentiment:
“We’ve both made clear our intention to continue to deepen our trade and investment relationship as the UK leaves the EU. Australia was the first country with whom the UK established a trade working group following the vote to leave the EU and we’re keeping up a regular and productive dialogue on the future of our free trading relationship.”
Earlier this year, Britain was reportedly engaged in informal talks on new trade pacts with 12 other countries.
For their part, the Australians even seem to think they can clinch a free trade deal with the European Union before the Brexit talks are even concluded.
And Britain itself may be at the front of a different queue, for a trade deal with the Americans post Brexit – and that, according to the Independent, may not be a very good place to be.
Everyone then, is talking to everyone – and everyone is a priority and at the front of everyone else’s queue. Clearly, we shouldn’t be reading too much into any of this shadow boxing on trade, at this point of the Brexit talks anyway.
In the meantime, New Zealanders on working holiday visas to Britain are finding that the old sentiments of Empire do not count for much when it comes to visa processing priorities.
Ditto on access to healthcare, where New Zealanders in Britain enjoy nothing like the free access to the NHS that Britons enjoy to our own public health system if and when they fall sick here.
None of these disparities are likely to be changed any time soon – and the post-Brexit climate is unlikely to be any more accommodating to New Zealand. At this point, Britain has barely begun to talk about the terms and conditions for EU nationals wishing to live and work in Britain, and the fate of New Zealanders is currently way down the list.
Like the Australians, we seem to be talking about the misty future of trade post Brexit while simultaneously trying to clinch a trade deal with the European Union. Imperial sentiments aside, the future EU deal seems far more important. Take our sheepmeat exports as one illuminating example. Currently, we enjoy an export quota of 228,000 tonnes of sheepmeat to the EU, 45 % of which goes to Britain. Where are those lamb exports likely to go – if and when we create new trade arrangements with the EU on one hand, and Britain on the other? The EU seems the stronger bet.
Besides, there will be major political obstacles to any meaningful Britain/NZ trade deal. Of late, farmers in Wales have been voicing their fears that any such Britain/NZ FTA would flood British supermarkets with cheap NZ lamb, to their detriment. Welsh farmers are already facing a crisis, given how Brexit will severely impact on Wales’ current economic dependency on the EU Common Agriculture Policy:
A third of Wales’ population lived in rural areas where farming and businesses which rely on agriculture, play an important role in local economies. Under the EU Common Agriculture Policy, Wales receives $432 million a year in direct payments to farmers. In 2014, half of Welsh farmers made or loss or would have done so that year without them.
Those CAP monies will be vanishing, post Brexit. Moreover, 93% of Welsh lamb is currently being exported to the EU – and post-Brexit, those exports are likely to be facing a 12 % tariff in future. Given that situation, your average Welsh farmer needs the fresh price competition from a new Britain/NZ trade deal like he or she needs a hole in the head. That political reality underlines that while a new British FTA deal may offer trade opportunities for New Zealand, it’s unclear where Britain would be likely to benefit.
At the post-Cabinet press conference on Monday I asked PM Bill English if he thought Welsh farmers had anything to fear from New Zealand negotiating a new trade deal with Britain. No, English replied, but added that this indicated that while agriculture was important to our trade, agriculture was always a difficult issue in all of our trade negotiations.
Three fiddle tunes this morning, and all of them use the instrument unconventionally. Last year, fiddle teacher Gaelynn Lea won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk competition with this extraordinary performance:
Lea’s harshly beautiful sound reminded me of this 1942 Library of Congress track by former cowboy Jess Morris – who learned “ Goodbye Old Paint” as a child in the 1880s from a black worker on his father’s farm, a lineage that takes this recording all the way back in one direction to the Civil War. Going forwards, Morris also influenced the brilliant New York experimental musician Arthur Russell, who recorded his own take on the same song. Here’s the rugged Morris original:
Finally, a modern dance track released during the past month, that uses fiddle in the same inventive ways. Sudan Archives is really an untrained violinist named Britney Denise Parks, and on ‘Come Meh Way” Parks uses her sawing violin on a track that evokes both ancient West African kora and modern urban hip hop….