So far the Government has refused to acknowledge any of the big questions about what future trade policy will mean for farmers. This cannot continue for long, says David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project and former civil servant at the Department for International Trade.
We’ve seen two significant events in the development of post-Brexit UK trade policy in the last week.
First, Liam Fox as Secretary State for International Trade launched consultations on potential bilateral trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, and the US.
Then the UK Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Julian Braithwaite, submitted draft schedules planned to take effect from April 2019, including our proposed Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs) for a diverse range of products such as beef, lamb, wheat and grape juice.
Both could have a huge impact on farmers, consumers, and food producers, yet this cumulative impact has scarcely been discussed by Government.
Equally leaving the EU with no deal could have immediate impacts on agriculture, similarly little discussed.
Putting the story together, the first thing to note is that the UK Government is saying that we are open to increasing agricultural imports from outside the EU.
You cannot complete trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, or the US without them gaining greater market access in agriculture.
Leaving to one side for a moment the relationship with the EU, the UK Government is also signalling that they are open to changing food standards in order to deliver trade agreements.
Alongside the consultations on individual countries, one has also been launched on the UK joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The Government will I’m sure be aware that we would need to lift the existing EU ban on hormone-treated beef to join TPP, though you won’t find this in the consultation document.
A bilateral agreement with the US would probably also require us to change our regulations in other areas of longstanding irritation to the US, such as the now infamous chlorine washed chickens, or pigs fed ractopamine.
As was noted in recent weeks, US demands in a Free Trade Agreement with the UK would almost certainly be incompatible with the UK proposals for a close relationship with the EU to prevent border checks either on the island of Ireland or on the Irish Sea.
These proposals would retain tariff- and quota-free trade in agricultural products between the EU and UK, on top of the existing proposal for an implementation period running to December 2020 where there was no change in the relationship.
There are two other scenarios worth considering. It is possible that ultimately the UK will accept the so-called ‘Northern Ireland backstop’ which could well mean Great Britain being free to change agricultural standards, while Northern Ireland would remain tied to EU food standards, probably from 2021.
Considered more likely at the moment is the ‘no-deal’ scenario where the UK and EU fail to reach any agreement at all, in which case UK-EU trade in agricultural produce is immediately subject to tariffs and quotas, doubtless causing huge disruption.
Given such a level of uncertainty, it is difficult to see UK proposals to the WTO being agreed any time soon.
The UK and EU have proposed to split existing EU TRQs between us on the basis of EU data showing where import licences were issued during the years 2013-2015.
This has not been well-received by major agricultural exporters, such as the countries mentioned above plus South American countries, who are complaining about the loss of flexibility to export to either UK or the rest of the EU, particularly noting that the figures supplied by the EU do not account for produce imported first into mainland EU and then shipped to the UK.
Some of the individual splits also produce unacceptable figures, such as the US having a 19 tonne quota for beef to the UK out of their current 11,500 tonne quota for the EU as a whole.
Should EU-UK trade start using the TRQs open to all WTO members, in the event of no-deal, they would of course have to be significantly larger.
Equally while Liam Fox has appealed for countries such as New Zealand not to make a fuss in the WTO and concentrate on a bilateral agreement, countries such as New Zealand cannot yet know if the UK will be able to implement such agreements any time soon, or whether we will end up in a customs union for some years that would preclude such a bilateral arrangement.
The most likely short-term outcome remains an implementation period until at least 2020, and I believe we should use this period to launch a proper consultation on agriculture and trade policy.
Liam Fox and others in the Government have suggested the UK will have a more liberal approach than the EU, but what will this mean for agriculture?
Are we expecting global imports to replace those from the EU, or come on top of them? Is the acceptance of different food standards impossible, in which case no US trade deal, and no TPP? Should we have more generous WTO TRQs?
So far we have little acknowledgement from Government of these questions, still less a way in which they will be answered.
Hopefully the initial consultations from the Department for International Trade are the start of a more open approach to a usually difficult subject in trade policy.
‘The UK’s First International Trade Negotiation – Agriculture at the WTO’ is published on the ECIPE website as part of the UK Trade Policy Project
David can be found tweeting at @DavidHenigUK