All four nations need to work together as partners to ensure the UK internal market continues to function, and devolution is respected, says Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion and Plaid Cymru’s agriculture spokesman in Westminster.
A year ago, the dominance of Brexit over UK politics was such that it essentially brought about the downfall of one Prime Minister, and facilitated the ascent of another.
The ‘B’ word featured heavily in almost every news bulletin, and caused countless arguments between family and friends alike.
At the time, few of us – if any – could have imagined that in a mere 12 months, Brexit would all but disappear as a daily topic of debate.
However, I fear this period of relative Brexit harmony may soon come to an end.
Shortly before Parliament rose for the summer recess, the UK Government published a consultation document on the future of the UK internal market.
As someone who has long argued that the governance and organisation of the UK ‘common market’ deserved urgent attention by the governments of the UK, I am pleased that the issue is finally being addressed.
The question of how the four governments will cooperate to ensure the effective functioning of the UK internal market is important, because if it fails, there could be serious consequences for both farmers and consumers.
This is a question we have not had to tackle for some time.
While a member of the EU, a range of standards – from animal welfare to the permitted levels of public subsidy for certain sectors – were determined by common agreements which set the parameters within which each country could operate.
This offered a safeguard against policy and regulatory divergence which could lead to harmful market distortion, and ensured a stable – and level – playing field for our industries.
This particular playing field will remain until the transition period ends this year, after which point the UK internal market will require a set of common frameworks and clear governance if it is to avoid significant policy divergence arising among its nations.
All sides of the debate agree that such a situation would be wholly undesirable.
Consider the consequences for Wales. The consultation on the internal market details that Welsh food and drinks manufacturers source 48 per cent of agriculture inputs from the rest of the UK.
Furthermore, around 31 per cent of products sold by Welsh food and drink retailers were produced in another part of the UK.
In other words, Wales’ agri-food supply chain is closely integrated with the rest of the UK.
You do not need to be a seasoned businessman to appreciate that two sets of diverging standards – let alone four – would introduce new costs and significant friction to these supply chains.
However, while all sides of the debate agree that a common set of standards and rules are needed if the UK internal market is to continue functioning effectively, disagreement is likely to arise on the question of how they should be set – and in particular, how they will be enforced.
Simply put, a solid foundation for the internal market would be for common frameworks, developed and agreed by the four nations of the UK, to determine the parameters within which policy and regulatory divergence is permitted.
An intergovernmental body could be established to resolve any disputes, or failing that, an independent body could be created to ensure compliance from each.
This would offer a level playing field for farmers across the UK, respect the devolution settlements, and deliver much needed stability.
The alternative is not worth considering.
An anarchical, regulatory free-for-all, would inevitably lead to a situation where the standards set for England would take precedence – thanks to its larger population and GDP – irrespective of the consequences for the other nations of the UK, or indeed their wishes.
Most importantly, such a scenario would risk exposing UK-wide supply chains and sectors such as agriculture to even more political volatility.
Given the uncertainty of the past four years, I think we can all agree that this is something we must avoid.
Ben can be found tweeting at @BenMLake