By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - It will take years for Britain to complete the process of leaving the European Union so Australia will pursue a trade deal with the bloc first, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said on Tuesday.
Since Britain's June 23 vote in favor of Brexit, Australia has said it is keen to seek a trade partnership with Britain. On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he wanted to negotiate a "very strong" free trade agreement with Britain.
Ciobo, in London for "exploratory discussions" with the government over a potential future trade deal, said that while there was aspiration on both sides to do a deal as soon as possible, in reality it would not be quick.
Britain has said it will not trigger the formal, two-year divorce process from the EU this year, and it cannot sign agreements with other countries until it leaves the bloc.
"While we wait for the UK to be in a position to formally negotiate, Australia is working towards a comprehensive, free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. This was our goal before June 23. It remains a goal for us today," he said in a speech at the London pan-Asian organization Asia House.
"The fact is Australia-UK negotiation on an FTA may be a few years off. The processes to disengage with the EU will take years, years of potential liberalization that we can’t afford to let slip."
Ciobo, who is headed to Brussels later this week to discuss the EU-Australia deal, said discussions he had with British trade minister Liam Fox on Tuesday had been "conducive" to having a deal in place shortly after Britain leaves the EU.
In a joint statement following their meeting, Fox and Ciobo said that they had agreed to set up a working group of senior officials which will "scope out the parameters" of a future deal to prepare for bilateral negotiations. The group will meet twice a year to review progress, they said.
Ciobo also told Asia House that he had offered to lend negotiating resources to Britain, which has few trade experts or negotiators after decades of relying on the EU to negotiate deals on its behalf.
"Clearly there is expertise to build upon," he said. "We will work to the UK's requests."
(Additional reporting by William Schomberg; Editing by Hugh Lawson)