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Our MPs are in a Brexit hole – it’s time to tell them to stop digging

Our MPs have dug themselves into a big Brexit hole, and only we can tell them to stop digging, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London.

You couldn’t make it up.

 

However anyone voted in May 2016, did they seriously expect this mess? I have to confess that I did.

 

I had watched in 1987-94 as food and farming were added into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in the Uruguay Round of negotiations.

 

It took seven tortuous years, not the two and a half years the UK has had since the referendum.

 

And, a good slice of those 30 months went on the British state having to get its act together.

 

Defra had been slashing its staff by about 40 per cent in the preceding three years, so there was next to no-one there to do the negotiation.

 

Amused

 

So I am amused at how little attention has been given to arch-Brexiter Michael Gove actually rebuilding Defra to about 1,200 staff today, almost back to what the numbers were in 2010.

 

Why has he had to do this? As we boring academics who study such things told his predecessors and anyone who would listen, 40 per cent of EU legislation is about food.

 

And pooling such matters at EU level meant that the UK didn’t need so many people.

 

It was sorted by negotiation and external trade deals were negotiated by highly specialised and experienced negotiators in the Brussels machinery – including many of our own.

 

The sad truth is that, if you choose to leave the club, you have to rebuild your infrastructure. And that process has barely begun.

 

Mrs May’s Draft Agreement which couldn’t be agreed is actually only part one of a process which will last years and bring long-term disruption and uncertainty.

 

Aspired

 

In a big report I co-authored, published back in July 2017, we itemised 30+ hidden support mechanisms which ensure high quality is at least aspired to in EU and UK food systems, if not always achieved.

 

Be careful before you throw these out.

 

Already, farming is watching the exodus of vets from abattoirs. Wait for the first food scandal when we haven’t got the support of the European Food Safety Authority.

 

I hear the Food Standards Agency cannot decide whether it needs more cuts or to take on more staff, because local authorities have been made to cut theirs, by 40 per cent, say the National Audit Office.

 

The lesson is quite simple actually. If we want a decent quality of life, we have to invest in it. That simple rule applies to food and farming, as we know.

 

Trade deals take a long time. You might ask why. It’s because they have to go into minute detail.

 

Multiply

 

A good analogy, which I first learned when farming, is that it takes a long time to get a field or a herd or a farm management system into shape. Now multiply the complexity a hundred or a thousand-fold.

 

The truth is that it might sound easy to leave the EU, but it actually means unravelling nearly half a century of co-existence, growth and neighbourliness.

 

Personally, I see little point in turning one’s back on neighbours or seeing them as enemies.

 

Or, to put it differently, when in a hole, it’s wise to stop digging.

 

Tell that to your MP perhaps.

 

Prof Lang can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang


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