To use a spot of football jargon, the Brexit negotiations benefited from their very own version of ’Fergie-time’, that fabled bit of extra-extra time that would seemingly appear at the end of Manchester United games when the Red Devils were managed by Sir Alex Ferguson. The games would go on longer than expected but the desired result, for Sir Alex at least, was achieved in the end.
That is seemingly what happened in the UK’s departure from the EU which was originally signalled four-and-a-half years ago via the referendum result. While it was ridiculous and hugely disruptive to only get a free trade deal over the line at such a late stage, many British farmers can now breathe a little easier as a result.
Particularly relieved will be those who bought a lot of store lambs at high prices before the Christmas period and were sweating the trade deal outcome. For others, especially seed potato exporters, there will be a bitter aftertaste that lingers until things are hopefully resolved.
The real challenge for agriculture now across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is to ensure that while there is some semblance of continuity in terms of trade, there continues to be relevant and realistic support for farmers via the new domestic agricultural policies which will begin to emerge in the coming years.
While many worried throughout the trade deal negotiations that agriculture could be used as a sacrificial lamb at the altar of free trade, there are now huge issues remaining even though that scenario has been avoided. In England, in particular, many farmers have been left cold by the Pathway to Sustainable Farming and are panicked by the imminent reductions in Basic Payments.
The shadow cast over the industry by EU trade negotiations may have receded, but the battle has in some ways only just started. The challenge now is to ensure we get agricultural policies which are in touch with reality and prioritise food production, rather than those which detrimentally reshape the industry along purely environmental lines.