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No-deal is a smokescreen for de-regulation and lower standards

For those advocating a no-deal Brexit, the real prize is a tariff-free, cheap food bonanza, all produced to lower standards, says Tom Lancaster, RSPB acting head of land use policy.

It will not have escaped the readers of the Farmers Guardian that, after a brief reprieve, a no-deal Brexit is very much ‘back on the table’.

 

In fact, if you believe the more fevered rhetoric from the Conservative leadership contest, it at times feels like a racing certainty.

 

A cursory glance at the analysis done by the likes of AHDB and others will tell you that no-deal would be a disaster for farming in the UK.

 

From an environmental perspective, Greener UK – a coalition of environmental organisations working on Brexit – found that no-deal fails all of our tests for a ‘Green Brexit’, with huge risks to environmental standards, mechanisms for enforcement, cross border cooperation and standards in the context of future trade policy.

 

Assessment

This is not a case of remoaner doom-mongering.

 

It is where you get to when you undertake an objective assessment of the known facts, and discount the unicorns that most arguments for no-dealism are based upon.


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Much of the discussion around no-deal has focused on tariffs, and the very real impact that these would have on UK farm businesses.

 

There have been spurious claims that Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) would enable the UK to retain current tariff free trade with the European Union (EU) in the event of no-deal.

 

Article 24

As much worthier and more knowledgeable people than me have pointed out, this is nonsense.

 

For Article 24 to apply, you need an interim agreement, also known as a ‘deal’. Pursuing ‘no-deal’ means exactly what it says on the tin, and that Article 24 does not apply.

 

The advocates of no-deal are, on the whole, not stupid people.

 

If you were being charitable, you would say their use of Article 24 to claim that everything will be fine for food and farming businesses is based on wilful ignorance.

 

Prize

If you were being less kind, you would say it was part of a strategy of intentional misdirection, aimed at suppressing opposition to their political project.

 

I will leave you to decide which is most likely.

 

The real prize of no-deal for those advocating it though is not a tariff free, cheap food bonanza.

As the Institute of Fiscal Studies have pointed out, removing tariffs on food imports would have a negligible impact on food prices, and the collapse in the value of sterling that would follow would, on balance, be more likely to lead to food price inflation.

 

Standards

No, the real prize is wholesale deregulation, and a shift away from the model of regulatory standards adopted by the EU.

 

These are standards that matter to the British public, around food safety, animal welfare and the natural environment.

 

They relate to issues such as pesticide residues in food, and generally are standards that, under normal circumstances, the British public would not be willing to see compromised.

 

As Albert Einstein was said to have observed however, ‘in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity’.

 

Crisis

For the no-dealers, it is only through a crisis that they can see through their political project to strip back regulatory protections and standards that the public would otherwise insist upon.

 

By cutting ourselves off from our main market and creating barriers to trade with the EU, they will be able to argue that we would then – as a result of the schism that they had created – have no option other than to do quick trade deals with the United States and others who operate to lower environmental and other standards than us.

 

A necessary part of such ‘quick and dirty’ trade deals would be a reduction or removal of environmental and other protections that we know the public value.

 

This strategy effectively treats farmers and the environment in the UK as collateral damage. For no-dealers, this collateral is worth seeing through the purity of a hard, unadulterated Brexit, uninterrupted by the realities of what such a seismic shift would mean for farming and nature.

 

Damage

This line of argument will no doubt lead to a backlash against me from some quarters.

 

That sort of attack is now par for the course for anyone who questions the sanctity of no-deal.

 

But as we come closer to the crunch, it is incumbent upon all of us who can see what damage a no-deal Brexit would do, to call a spade a spade.

 

If we do not, we are all heading for the cliff edge, and farming will be the first to hit the bottom.

 

Tom can be found tweeting @tommlancaster

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