'Agriculture is not ready to be written off in Europe or Australia as a casualty of wider economics'

It might be half a world away, but it is good to see a win for farmers. The industry in Australia had a big win this week when it persuaded its government to pull out of a trade deal with the EU.

It claimed politicians were heading for a G7 finance summit in Japan, with pens poised to sign a deal and urged them to think again. Most saw this as a forlorn hope, but at the last minute Australia rejected the deal because it offered too little for agriculture in return for EU access.

This is proof of the Burns quotation about how best laid plans 'gang aft a-gley'. The EU was left embarrassed, with its heavy hitters, including the farm commissioner, at the event and ready to sign. There will be efforts to revive a deal that has been years in the making, but realistically finding a solution is likely to fall to a new European Commission.

At issue, as has been the case for Australian farmers since the start, is the scale of zero and reduced tariff access to the EU for meat. The EU held firm, moving only part of the way to meet Australia, knowing if it went further that pro-agriculture countries, such as Ireland and France, might block the unanimous member state support needed to ratify a trade deal. This is an example of farmer power winning against the odds; it follows rural power playing a big role in switching the New Zealand government from centre left to centre right and comes weeks before farmers in the Netherlands are set to deliver a general election shock over opposition to EU productivity cuts.

The UK government has sought to spin the collapse of the EU/Australia deal as a contrast to its own success in securing southern hemisphere trade deals, which it claims will bring cheaper imports for UK consumers. This political opportunism misses the point. The EU deal is in trouble, because on behalf of member states it made a stand over imports to ensure the deal would be ratified. In a similar vein Australia has bowed to pressure from the industry there because the deal did not give it access to the EU on the scale it wanted.

This is a difference the government in London does not seem to get. Trade deals are easy if you throw open your food markets, but they become much more difficult once either party makes a stand in this area. This is what happened in the EU with the Mercosur deal with South America still not ratified after 20 years. The Australian deal has foundered for now, ultimately because both sides made a stand on behalf of the respective farming and food industries. Those are principles unlikely to find support at Westminster from any political party.

This has left the EU embarrassed. The Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in her recent state of the union speech that the EU was committed to drive fair and open global markets. It has clearly failed on this deal with Australia for domestic agricultural reasons, despite needing access to Australian minerals for RV vehicle manufacture to counter the power of China.

Equally the Australian government has been left embarrassed. It too is committed to freeing up global trade and sees massive benefits beyond agriculture in a European market of 450 million people. The lesson for both is that agriculture is not ready to be written off in Europe or Australia as a casualty of wider economics. Farmers are already victims of a global green mindset, but the collapse of this deal confirms that when it comes to trade they can still put up a fight.

Time will tell whether anything can be salvaged. Negotiators are back to square one, having given the deal their best shot only for it to be blocked by politics. The future is not easy, because of timing. In the EU the European parliament elections in June are the stopping point for progress and there are bigger issues to be completed than trade deals.

The European Commission will continue until November, but it will become powerless without the time or a parliament to complete legislation. Australia faces a general election in 2025 and given recent examples of rural power in New Zealand and in the rejection of an Australian government referendum on the rights of indigenous people no Canberra politician will want to risk forcing through an unpopular trade deal.