The past six months have seen a ‘phoney war’ with much loose talk about the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU, but little sense of reality. The Prime Minister is expected to start the formal process of UK exit from the EU in a matter of weeks.
As our leaders seek radical changes to our trading position in the world, every sector of the economy needs to consider where it’s best future lies and plan accordingly. It is the well organised industries with a clear vision that will be effective in influencing government priorities at this time of change.
In setting that vision we must not underestimate how much the way we farm, process and market our food has been shaped by decades of serving an overwhelmingly domestic and European market. Our agriculture and food sector operates behind high tariff walls within the EU. The way in which we reposition ourselves economically, within or alongside, the EU will define the future of our farming sector.
The risks of getting this wrong are great. The most ardent advocates of ‘hard Brexit’ say the UK should remove itself from the EU, without a preferential trade deal agreed, while removing all tariff barriers for food exporters worldwide to sell their goods into the UK market. We must be robust in showing the devastating consequences this would have for our countryside.
Equally I fear that those hoping the UK can remain a full member of the single market, but outside the EU, are going to be disappointed. The political and legal barriers to securing this are too high.
The best and desirable option for the food sector is for the UK and EU to agree a bilateral free trade agreement securing tariff free access and maintaining the current high level of regulatory and customs convergence. Securing the right deal is going to be tough for any sector, but for food especially. Food trade negotiations are always complex and emotive.
It will take great energy to secure concrete reassurances at every stage, and from all sides, that achieving a good trade deal for the food sector is a priority.
Our job is to make the case, and to show that our high standards of production, animal welfare, environmental stewardship, our valuable landscapes, rural communities and cultural identity are all at risk if we don’t get this aspect of Brexit right. Our collective future is at stake.