Like politicians, the general public have short memories, and however strongly they felt last year about ‘getting Brexit done’, realities that hit them in the pocket will lead to far more unrest than being sick of Brexit headlines, says FUW’s head of policy Dr Nick Fenwick.
As I write, with the New Year just days away, farmers, food manufacturers, exporters, importers and the general public remain in a no-man’s land of uncertainty regarding future trading arrangements with the EU, and certainty that a long list of preparations for Brexit – hard or otherwise – is nowhere near completion.
While nine months of pandemic will certainly have added to difficulties for Governments, given that the vote to leave the EU took place four and a half years ago, we are left with the clear impression that the chaos wouldn’t have been much different had 2020 been a normal year.
After all, the Republic of Ireland, France and Germany etc. are well ahead of us in terms of preparations despite having their own problems with the virus, and the UK Government did have the opportunity to extend the withdrawal period to take account of the pandemic – but turned it down.
Coronavirus is not the only thing that has hampered preparations and progress.
The EU is apparently being awkward, obstructive and unreasonable in the trade talks.
The most surprising thing about this is how shocked some politicians claim to be about the fact that the EU is hard-nosed when negotiating its political as well as financial interests.
As trade talks with the US, Australia and New Zealand continue, let us hope that such political naivety is just an excuse rather than being genuine, given the pressure to secure deals that will grab tomorrow’s headlines but could tie us into unsatisfactory arrangements for decades and change the very nature of UK farming.
In this context, the concern for UK farmers continues to be around our domestic standards and markets being up for grabs during negotiations.
The experience over the last year in relation to the Agriculture Act and the failure to draw red lines for food standards has left the industry livid.
Yes, the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been extended to consider this issue, but many of the speeches in Parliament during the passage of the Bill let the cat out of the bag about why they don’t want any red lines.
And the current consultation about limiting animal movements and banning live exports suggests a willingness to hammer our own producers while opening up our market to produce that wouldn’t even begin to meet current UK standards.
Despite the bravado and closing of ranks, politicians allied with the UK Government who represent rural constituencies must be extremely nervous.
They have been bombarded by campaigns and in meetings over the Agriculture Act at unprecedented levels, but this only related to concerns over a future hypothetical risk.
The impacts of leaving the EU proper on January 1 will soon be hitting people directly, and for the food and farming industry that looks like it will mean major delays at ports, additional costs and reduced returns – not to mention general chaos, even if a UK-EU deal is reached.
The added impact of massive EU import tariffs in our most important export market in the event of a no-deal will amplify this many fold.
And let’s not forget the imminent cuts to English BPS payments due to be introduced next year, or the disingenuous creative accounting used to slash next year’s agricultural budget by hundreds of millions (a cut of between 28 and 41 percent for Wales alone), while claiming the budget has been ‘guaranteed’ at 2019 levels.
Like politicians, the general public have short memories, and however strongly they felt last year about ‘getting Brexit done’, realities that hit them in the pocket and threaten their foreign holidays or their pet passports will lead to far more unrest than simply being sick of Brexit headlines.
And palming off blame on an ‘unreasonable’ EU will only wash with some.
The politically safer solution would be to ensure a decent deal and grace period is agreed with the EU, agricultural budgets are restored and severe chaos and damage to businesses thereby negated.