Farmers have learned more than they ever wanted to know about trade and international treaties since Brexit, and it should not be too much to ask for those who govern us to do the same, says Dr Nick Fenwick, FUW’s head of policy.
Understanding trade tariffs, WTO rules, Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs), Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) and all the other aspects of international trade hardly comes as second nature to most, and when other layers of complexity are laid on top, such as the political relationships and interactions between trading blocs and countries, the subject starts to make differential calculus look simple.
The more charitable among us might therefore have forgiven Brexit campaigner David Davis MP for telling his Twitter followers a month before the referendum that “The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal. Similar deals would be reached with other key EU nations.”
In saying this, he missed a key argument of the Brexit campaign about EU membership unfairly (in their view) preventing individual countries from negotiating trade deals – a simple concept that must have hit home, if it hadn’t already, when Davis found himself on a plane to Brussels (not Berlin) after being appointed as Theresa May’s Secretary of State responsible for negotiating Brexit.
Much water has passed under the bridge since then, not to mention two general elections, and many farmers have learned more about the WTO, TRQs and international treaties than they had ever wanted to.
Moreover, we might well have expected that during the past four years, politicians, whether former Remainers or avid Brexiteers, would have come up to speed on at least some of the principles and complexities around leaving the EU.
From a political point of view, one of the most obvious and complicated of these is the interaction of the Good Friday agreement, which finally brought peace to Northern Ireland, and any future trade deal with the EU – so much so that it has been discussed endlessly, particularly in agricultural circles given how much food criss-crosses the north-south border and the Irish sea.
In fact, it was a topic of discussion long before the referendum took place, with many speculating even then that some form of tariff/customs border in the Irish Sea was the only rational solution to harder Brexit scenarios.
As such, by the time Boris Johnson was heralding the ‘oven-ready’ EU withdrawal deal during the 2019 election campaign, the subject should have been one familiar to anyone seeking to serve either as a Member of Parliament or in Her Majesty’s Government.
Even someone unexpectedly elected to Parliament had ample time to read and understand the implications of the withdrawal deal before voting for or against it in early January this year, and to understand the part relating to the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol which had been published months earlier.
After all, politically complicated as the subject might be, we might have expected those who wished to govern us and take decisions relating to our future as an independent trading nation to have read and understood what can hardly be described as ‘smallprint’ in the agreement.
Yet it now appears, at least superficially, that neither the Government, nor the majority of newly-elected MPs, had read or understood what had been negotiated with Europe and published in October, brought forward in a Government Bill in December and voted for in January.
This is a pretty damning conclusion about the quality of those who govern us, but is nevertheless one that appears on the surface to be true, given the apparent Government awakening to the implications of the deal and subsequent U-turn – in spite of international law – in the form of the Internal Market Bill, and its overwhelming support from Tory MPs on Monday September 14.
However, given that the Government was explicitly warned in January of the perceived problems it is now seeking to redress, there is an alternative, more damning interpretation; namely, that it was decided such concerns would be brushed under the carpet in the hope they would somehow go away, while MPs, most of whom were unlikely to have read or fully understood the withdrawal agreement, would for reasons of political expedience be led by the nose to vote for what they had been assured was an ‘oven-ready’ deal.
There are, of course, far more charitable explanations, but these seem unlikely to be given more than a moment’s thought by those countries with which we are currently negotiating trade deals or hope to trade with in future, who have just witnessed a previously trusted country attempting to pass legislation that breaches an international treaty on which the ink is barely dry.
Notwithstanding this, the embarrassment of vast numbers of Government MPs is palpable, and no doubt many are keeping their powder dry in the hope that the Government will come to its senses and accept the albeit problematic implications of Article 4 of the withdrawal agreement.
Meanwhile, as the Government celebrates the end of negotiations over a UK-Japan trade agreement that would continue the benefits we already enjoy under the EU-Japan deal, let us hope the smallprint is properly scrutinised before it is brought into law.
After all, with the Financial Times reporting that the Japan deal would commit us to tougher state aid restrictions than those we are currently offering the EU – an offer which the EU is not happy with and is part of the reason for the current stalemate – we do not want to end up breaching two international treaties in the period of a year.