Ease of trade in the post-Brexit world was a key element of all discussions around agriculture at the Conservative Party Conference this week.
When pressed on Britain’s membership of the single market by NFU President Meurig Raymond, Food and Farming Minister George Eustice said he was not able to give a straight answer. He added:
“It is true that if you are in the customs union you get perfect access, but it closes opportunity to do other trade deals. We must not get bogged down with Norway and Switzerland models – we are fifteen times bigger than Norway. The truth is we are going to have a UK model.
“This is the first time a major state has left the EU and the trade deficit we have with them means the dynamics of the negotiations are completely different. It is eminently possible to put together a bespoke free trade agreement between the EU and the UK that gives us the access we need while giving us freedom to pursue opportunities elsewhere.”
Both Mr Eustice and Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom told audiences that Defra staff with the right expertise will be leading the negotiations on agriculture in trade talks. Mrs Leadsom went on to say:
“The whole Cabinet agrees about the importance of food and farming to our economy. At every single Cabinet sub-committee meeting, we focus on issues around food and farming. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind about how important it is. I have had discussions with Liam Fox (International Trade Secretary) and he is absolutely committed to the sector.”
Protecting the UK from lower quality imports
Opening up the UK to cheap food imports of a lower quality was another concern for conference attendees. Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom said she did not want Britain to ‘look around the world for cheaper food’ and that our standards are ‘second to none’.
Mr Eustice added:
“It is a manifesto commitment for us to reflect animal welfare standards in trade negotiations. Producers who want to import will have to match our standards. If we are unable to reach agreement, tariff rate quotas will apply.
“We have well-established mechanisms to deal with these kinds of issues, all of these things are quite doable.”