Australia's Battle against the Common Agricultural Policy: The Fraser Government's Trade Diplomacy and the European Community

By Benvenuti, Andrea | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Australia's Battle against the Common Agricultural Policy: The Fraser Government's Trade Diplomacy and the European Community


Benvenuti, Andrea, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The aim of this article is to offer a different interpretation of Fraser Government's diplomacy towards the European Community. In particular, it will be argued that, although Fraser's European policy was unsuccessful, this was not principally his fault since no matter what sort of approach he adopted, no major result could have been obtained from Brussels. Second, this article will argue that Fraser clearly understood the EC's internal political dynamics and acted accordingly. If he failed to achieve results, it was not because he lacked an understanding of the complexity of the EC's constitutional realities, but because these realities were too complex for anyone to overcome. Thirdly, it will be argued that Fraser did not attribute a disproportionate importance to agriculture, since this was far and away the most important issue for Australia.

A broad consensus exists on the question of how the Fraser Government's foreign and trade policy towards the European Community (EC) should be evaluated. By and large, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's European diplomacy has been judged in negative terms. Criticism has followed three main lines. Firstly, it has focused on the extremely aggressive tactics and style of the Government's diplomacy: in Burnett's words,

   [f]rontal assaults, blunt criticism by Australian Ministers in public
   speeches and statements, uncompromising negotiation at official level
   throughout the MTN bilateral phase, fundamentally different approaches on
   the issues before the GATT Ministerial Meeting made their mark.(1)

According to Joanne Watts, Fraser's diplomatic style could be portrayed as "hurling ... stones at the lumbering giant in a hit and miss fashion".(2) For the Financial Review it was "years of ... screaming against European trade barriers and farm subsidisation".(3) The implication, sometimes made explicit, is that this approach was simply counterproductive. As the Financial Review put it, "Malcolm Fraser astonished and angered the European Community with what they called his `wild buffalo diplomacy'".(4) According to Alan Renouf, a former permanent secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, "all of Australia's efforts merely impaired the already unsatisfactory relations with the EEC".(5) In other words, the fact that relations between Canberra and Brussels were at a low ebb in the years 1975-83 could quite largely be attributed to the Fraser Government's own diplomatic mismanagement.

Secondly, the Fraser Government has been criticised, by Burnett for example, for "misread[ing] the Commission" and "for not work[ing] as effectively as it [could] have done in developing its relations with the important member states".(6) According to Bumen, "Australia seem[ed] usually to have dealt with the Commission in Brussels as if it were the government of the economic federation of Europe".(7) This perspective is shared by Watts who has noted that "with regard to the EC [Australia] has concentrated its negotiating efforts at Commission level. This illustrates a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the EC organisational structure".(8)

And thirdly, the Fraser Government has been criticised for having attached a disproportionate importance to the agricultural question in the context of the overall Euro-Australian relationship. As Renouf has argued, "coalition party Governments ... neglected Europe as they developed relations elsewhere. With Western Europe, they ... continually harped upon agricultural trade. They failed to appreciate that some progress might be made in this area if Australia developed the overall relationship--political, defence and social".(9)

The aim of this article is to offer a different interpretation of Fraser's diplomacy towards the EC. Firstly, it will be argued that, although Fraser's European policy was unsuccessful, this was not principally his fault. His diplomatic style was not a determining variable, since no matter what sort of approach he had adopted, no major result could have been obtained from Brussels. …

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