In promising to uphold the UK’s high food production standards, but refusing to explain how, the Government has displayed a failure of imagination on post-Brexit trade policy, says Tom Lancaster, acting head of land, seas and climate policy at the RSPB.
The current debate about trade policies, free trade agreements and farming standards is depressing for many reasons.
The obvious one is that it opens up the prospect of a race to the bottom, or of our farmers (and by extension farmed animals, environment and food safety) being undermined by low standard imports.
I’m not actually that downbeat about this though.
I’ve quite enjoyed the galvanising effect this has had in bringing together farmers and their representatives with the ‘green blob’ – aka me and my colleagues.
And now Number 10 has contrived to alienate a whole swathe of their backbenchers with something about a mobile eye test between Durham and Barnard Castle – or Castle Barnard if you’re a journalist based in London – the remaining stages of the Agriculture Bill offer a definite opportunity to right the much-publicised wrong of MPs voting not to secure safeguards in mid-May.
No, what depresses me more is the complete failure of imagination that the Government has shown on international trade policy to date.
The central defence of the Government position on trade and standards has been that an amendment to the Agriculture Bill based on production standards would not be consistent with various rules, especially those of the World Trade Organisation, or with established precedents for Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).
Alongside this, they then make the repeated, and apparently contradictory claim, that there’s nothing to worry about anyway because they have committed to ‘maintain the same import standards’ and that ‘no UK import standards will be diminished as part of an FTA’.
But of course they can’t prescribe this in law, because it would be against the international rules and precedents… and round and round we go.
What the UK Government arguments reveal is an approach that is narrow minded and unimaginative in relation to the role of trade policy in the twenty first century.
Over the last two decades, and especially since the collapse of the last round of WTO global trade talks (the ‘Doha Round’), international trade policy has evolved from being focused on removing tariffs and developing an international rules based system, to one that has instead refocused towards bilateral FTAs, either between nations or trading blocks.
In this context, the bigger the nation or block, the more power and leverage they have.
And increasingly, the biggest players – the EU, US and increasingly China – use this leverage to lock less powerful nations into their regulatory model.
In this context, the UK has found itself in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war, and food and farming standards are to the fore as perhaps the biggest point of difference between the EU and American models of regulation.
As a major economy, the UK could use this to our advantage.
We could establish a process whereby Parliament sets mandates for trade negotiations, as the US Congress and European Parliament do, in order to provide a back stop for our trade negotiators.
We could establish our red lines in law – as the Neil Parish amendment to the Agriculture Bill was intended to do – to create clarity for our prospective trade partners and confidence for key sectors of the UK economy.
And in doing this, we could put the major challenges of the twenty first century front and centre, and ensure future free trade agreements were responsive to societal concerns such as climate change, biodiversity decline and sustainable development.
This would help to develop a genuinely ‘Made in Britain’ trade policy.
But the UK Government doesn’t appear to be doing any of these things. It is resistant to any checks and balances, or Parliamentary scrutiny.
It consistently fails to recognise that climate change or our impact on the natural environment are issues which are relevant to the Department for International Trade’s remit.
And rather than look forward, it looks back to previous precedents to justify its unwillingness to act on the concerns of farmers or environmentalists.
As the Agriculture Bill moves into the House of Lords, the opportunity is there for Parliamentarians to think outside the box and ensure our standards and our values are not up for sale, but instead at the centre of how we engage with the rest of the world.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster