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Post-Brexit agriculture needs to supply the nation, not just a nostalgic imagination

Any difficult decisions made in the Brexit negotiations and future trade deals must not stop UK farmers feeding the nation, says South West MEP and EU Agriculture Committee member Julie Girling.

The Civil Service is a flurry of activity, with optimistic policy positions under continual review, test and possible application.

 

The problem, typically, is that for all the careful work published, the audience is next to negligible.

 

There is simply no appetite to consider elaborate or thoughtful ideas, and what might be, while membership of the Customs Union remains contentious: put more crudely, there is currently only one game in town, and the wrangling in Westminster is illustrative of this.

 

Ominously

 

I thought this might be a useful opportunity to take stock of the Brexit scenario, and put forward some possible implications for agri-business, while the clock ticks ominously closer to midnight.

 

Even the most casual of Brexit observers - and I can appreciate why people are becoming increasingly casual - will have noticed the subtle drop of the Government refrain ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.

 

This exposes the reality that business, and perhaps more critically, EU negotiators have always known; a cliff edge scenario is almost inconceivable, other than in the imagination of the most fundamentalist Brexiteers, but going from just inside to just outside the EU is un-modelled territory.

 

Succinctly

 

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg put it most succinctly: ‘Before they were in with a lot of opt-outs; now they are out and want a lot of op-ins’.

 

While I appreciate it is fashionable to attack Governments over their European credentials, the UK had actually secured a self-interested position, with full access and a seat at the table, but only peripheral links to other core elements.

 

For economic integration, the UK had to deal with some unpalatable legislation, but was broadly able to opt out of the least attractive elements. To achieve the same from outside the EU is proving much more difficult.

 

Opportunities

 

The above a given, ‘third country’ status can open opportunities. Whatever the final agreement, it seems likely that the UK will leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

 

This would allow an extensive reconsideration of the domestic subsidies regime, and position the UK to peruse comprehensive tariff reduction.

 

After all, it is not only UK consumers who pay the cost of the CAP, but also those developing nations to whom we are historically linked.

 

It is conceivable that products such as beef, chicken and pork could see a significant increase in imports from global players, and a concurrent reduction in price would be welcome.

 

Costs

 

But is this what consumers really want if they understand the costs involved? The balance of argument gives pause for concern.

 

Global partners will be unwilling to agree bespoke food standards for a market of 66 million, and even where that is possible, robust compliance mechanisms will be little more than theoretical.

 

Take for example the United States; any future trade agreement will require a reduction in quite popular standards.

 

Herbicides such as Atrazine, which is commonly used in American agriculture but banned under EU health legislation, is one such concern.

 

Dogged

 

This small microcosm perfectly encapsulates the issue of future divergence, which has also dogged the Brexit negotiations, and is illustrative of the difficult trade-offs that will be required.

 

Post-Brexit agriculture needs to supply the nation, not just a nostalgic imagination, and it is important our Secretary of State understands this and keeps its interests at the forefront of the negotiators minds as we enter the critical phase of the Brexit negotiations.

 

If an agreement is reached, it needs to begin the ratification process by January 2019 so the British Parliament, EU institutions and member states can approve it.

 

Finalise

 

That leaves us until December, or more realistically, the October European Council meeting to finalise arrangements.

 

Agri-business, like all facets of this negotiation, understands the hard trade-offs that will need to be agreed.

 

I only hope it is not too late, or that courage remains to give this whole process a rethink.


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