Following the Chequers agreement, there was collective relief when it appeared the UK Cabinet’s two-year impasse on its Brexit negotiating position had finally been broken, writes NFU Scotland political affairs manager Clare Slipper.
But as we have all come to learn, the path to Brexit never did run smooth, and the content of that agreement was then somewhat overshadowed by a series of resignations and straight-up pontifications.
This comes with a significant amount of frustration for the agricultural industry which, alongside other organisations representing large sectors of the UK’s economy, welcomed the UK Government’s proposals as a crucial step forward.
For NFU Scotland and the other UK farming unions, the Government’s commitment to seek to achieve a free trade area for agri-food suggested consistent lobbying regarding the importance of free and frictionless EU-UK trade had been heeded.
The detailed position within the Government’s White Paper suggested the Prime Minister had stretched the political elastic to achieve something as close as possible to NFU Scotland’s preferred option of a customs union as far as she feasibly could.
However, following the political antics, it appears these otherwise sensible proposals have been reduced to no more than the next volume of political infighting in the sorry Brexit saga.
And if UK parliamentarians can’t get behind this position, then what are the chances of the EU negotiators showing goodwill and entering into serious negotiations on its contents?
Even more concerning is that if negotiators on both sides don’t buy in to this arrangement, with the lack of anything else workable on the table, ‘no deal’ becomes a very real prospect.
On the EU side at least, planning is already underway for such an outcome, with the publication of a Commission document in July outlining the implications.
Regarding agri-food, the Commission suggests additional checks and certificates would be required for UK plant and animal products entering the bloc.
This could in turn lead to ‘long lines of vehicles waiting for customs procedures to be fulfilled’.
‘No deal’ would be the worst-case scenario and tantamount to the kind of chaotic cliff-edge change we are desperately trying to avoid.
It would mean no transition period between March 2019 and December 2020, and that would be hugely destabilising for the farming industry.
It would also mean the UK becoming a third country overnight, bringing hard borders, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) default being imposed.
There would be no specific arrangements for the movement of people and no continuity of the Common Agricultural Policy to allow a managed transition to new domestic agricultural policy arrangements.
To put it simply, ‘no deal’ is not an option for the agricultural industry.
The Brexit clock runs out on March 29 2019, but due process dictates that the principles of the future relationship should be agreed in time for the EU Council in October if a deal is to be struck in time.
A deal on the UK’s withdrawal gives us a clear opportunity to manage change and establish a clear operating and trading environment. This offers a degree of certainty businesses need.
That is why NFU Scotland will continue to push every MP in Scotland to back this deal, as will the other farming unions with their representatives throughout the rest of the UK.
With confidence increasingly fragile, the agricultural industry needs clear and positive signals about a post-Brexit future – not rhetoric that would see an industry being pushed into the abyss.