The first phase of Brexit may finally be drawing to a close, but the real battle on trade and how it will affect Welsh farming is yet to come, says Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster ag spokesman.
The developments of the past fortnight may prove to be the decisive chapter of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
With a pace previously alien to the Brexit process, the Prime Minister intensified negotiations with EU counterparts, brought them to a conclusion, unveiled a new withdrawal agreement, and found a majority for the legislation that could implement his deal.
The passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) at Second Reading was significant, as it found the Commons supported the principal features of the Bill.
It was, in effect, the first time the House of Commons has indicated support for a Brexit deal.
Nevertheless, this blistering progress came to an abrupt halt as MPs and the Prime Minister clashed on the proposed timetable, with MPs requesting more time to scrutinise the Bill than the three days allocated.
After all, the Commons took nearly thirty sitting days to pass the Maastricht Treaty, and even the Treaty of Nice was afforded five days of debate.
Whatever happens next, the subject of trade deals will almost certainly gain prominence, and I hope that in addition to discussing tariff schedules and tariff rate quotas, due consideration will also be given to the importance of regulatory alignment to reduce friction with trading partners.
As I touched upon in my previous article, the question of whether the UK will remain aligned to the EU in terms of standards will loom large in the coming months, and the answer will largely determine the prospects of our food and drink exports for a generation.
As a member of the EU, the UK abides by a set of regulatory standards – a series of sanitary and phytosanitary measures – on issues affecting farming, food production and processing.
This regulatory alignment facilitates trade between EU member states by removing non-tariff barriers.
Divergence from these standards could therefore introduce greater friction to our trade with EU partners, and given they are currently the destination for over 80 per cent of Welsh red meat exports, such a development would have significant consequences for our continued access to such an important market.
Much has been said of the potential of a trade deal with the United States, but as the NFU and FUW have rightly pointed out, it could come at the price of lowering our standards of production.
Indeed, leading figures from both the US Government and industry have made this condition clear.
US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, told business leaders in 2017 that changing food safety regulations would be a ‘critical component of any trade discussion’, and the UK should take steps to remove ‘unnecessary regulatory divergences’ with the US.
Doing so would impact on our ability to export to the EU, and consequently on the incomes of Welsh farmers.
For this reason, NFU President Minette Batters is right to push for the establishment of a trade and standards commission to ensure future UK trade policy does not undermine our high environmental and animal welfare standards, or put our farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
Questions of regulatory alignment and trade policy are far from straightforward, and present an array of difficult trade-offs to consider.
Yet we must guard against the temptation to rush into short-term decisions that might inflict long-term harm on our agricultural sector.
Calm, considered scrutiny will bring about real progress.
As we say in Welsh, ‘nid ar redeg mae aredig’ – ‘you don’t plough by running’, or, ‘less haste more speed’.
Ben can be found tweeting at @BenMLake