Farming chiefs have given a mixed response to the Prime Minister’s Brexit plans which involve quitting the single market.
Theresa May used her much-anticipated speech to announce her desire for the UK to become a ‘global trading nation’ that is ‘respected around the world’ and hoped to still have access to the single market without any cost and without being bound by tariffs.
Pointing towards the UK’s EU ‘friends and allies’, Mrs May said: “We want to buy your goods and services – to sell you ours and to trade with you freely.
“We want to give British companies maximum freedom to trade with and operate in European markets."
The British farming sector – along with many other industries – has consistently warned of the dangers of putting up barriers to accessing the European market whether financial or logistical.
While industry bosses have welcomed some clarity surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union, they are concerned the Prime Minister has ruled out the UK’s continuing participation in the trading bloc and effectively ’shut the door’ on 500 million EU consumers.
The National Sheep Association said it was concerned the Government was taking away the sheep industry’s biggest export market ’with no clear plan for how to replace it’.
Up to 40 per cent of UK sheep meat is exported every year, mostly into the EU.
NFU Cymru and the Farmers’ Union of Wales agreed that with 30 per cent of lamb currently being exported to Europe, ’unfettered access’ to the market would be crucial for the sector to survive.
The Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) said a divorce from the EU which did not encompass either single market access or customs union membership was ’potentially very damaging for UK agriculture and food production’.
NFU Scotland said the pressure was now on to achieve the Prime Minister’s objective of a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU.
NFU president Meurig Raymond welcomed what he called a ‘highly ambitious’ speech, saying he was ‘heartened’ to hear Mrs May would not be taking a cliff edge approach in any of the Brexit negotiations.
He also applauded her decision to talk of a phased implementation rather than any immediate transition because ’the industry needs certainty and time to adjust’.
However, he said such trade deals often took years to achieve and may not cover all products.
Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) said the decision had put more pressure on politicians to find a practical answer to cross border trading between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
UFU president Barclay Bell said: “After Brexit, regardless of the deal struck on trade, the movement of products and access to labour between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be different.
“That will bring complications we do not have now," he said.
“Whatever outcome the Assembly elections deliver it is vital that local politicians get involved in this debate with London to ensure we can maintain free movement of goods across the border and access to labour, with minimal red tape."
The NFU said it would be seeking ’urgent talks’ with the Government to ensure post-Brexit Britain ’works for British food production’.
It came as US President-elect Donald Trump said the UK was at the front of the line for a trade deal.
“What we need now is a bespoke tariff free trade agreement free of any non-tariff barriers,” Mr Raymond added.
CLA president Ross Murray said the association was ’cautious’ about the consequences of new trade deals with other countries and markets.
"We understand and support the principle that post-Brexit, the Government will pursue a range of trade agreements that can bring benefits to the UK economy as a whole.
"However, we will urge the Government to consider closely the balance of opportunity and risk for the agri-food sector that is specific to each and every potential deal available to the UK post-Brexit."
Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, said that with 80 per cent of Uk dairy exports currently going to EU countries, any disruption would be extensive and have a ’costly impact’.
"We support the Government’s commitment to put in place a strong, swift and effective transitional process and urge them to avoid any kind of interruption to current trade agreements with EU countries or the creation of counterproductive tariff or non-tariff barriers," she said.
"What we absolutely cannot see is a fall back to WTO default terms as the tariffs within WTO arrangements would have disastrous consequences for dairy trade.
"In addition to uninterrupted access to the EU market, our priority for the UK dairy industry is to avoid the creation of non-tariff barriers and to retain access to productive labour."
Speaking at today’s NFU Council meeting, the union’s vice-president Guy Smith said: “This is a hard Brexit. It will not be done in a big bang way which is what farmers need rather than having the rug pulled out from beneath them."
The NFU highlighted three key demands as Britain prepares its EU exit plan: