Defra Secretary Michael Gove has said the UK will not drop tariffs on food unilaterally if no free trade agreement with the EU can be reached.
Mr Gove made the remarks when giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee this morning.
Industry had feared the trade liberalisation option was on the table after it became clear the Department for International Trade was considering it in the event of a no-deal scenario.
Several studies have shown a unilateral drop in tariffs would be catastrophic for UK farmers, with prices across all commodities plummeting as cheap imports from the rest of the world flood into the country.
Asked whether he would be fighting for tariffs to be maintained or dropped if no EU-UK deal could be agreed, Mr Gove said: “My assumption and my preference would be we would maintain tariffs in order to ensure we did not have the sort of change occurring in agriculture which would lead to disruption which would be unhelpful for reasons of continuity of supply and health in the industry.
“It is the view, not just of the team in Defra, but of most observers, that if you reduce tariffs, you reduce prices, but you create particular challenges for the livestock sector and the red meat sector.
“The livestock sector and the red meat sector, whether in Wales or Scotland, are often a critical part in maintaining the health of rural societies and rural areas.”
Mr Gove also batted away concerns about Defra’s strength and ability to shape future trade policy, pointing out agriculture was one of only two areas where spending had been ring-fenced until 2022 and the Industrial Strategy promised a food and drink sector deal.
“Defra punches above its weight and has the extra muscle”, Mr Gove said.
“We have already done it with the Industrial Strategy and we have already done it with financial support, so we would do it with a trade deal.”
Defra Brexit impact assessments
Mr Gove and Farming Minister George Eustice were criticised by MPs after they admitted Defra’s Brexit impact assessments would not be published before the Agriculture Bill, due in spring.
Mr Eustice said the department would be carrying out its own sector-by-sector analysis of the impact of a variety of different Brexit scenarios ‘in the next year’.
“A lot of it is ready, we have got some earlier work, but we are constantly refining the models”, he added.
Department for Exiting the EU (DxEU) sectoral analysis
Though Mr Gove suggested MPs read DxEU’s sectoral analysis, he was unable to say how much of the report on food and drink was already in the public domain.
“It is interesting and useful, but how much of it is in the public domain I cannot know”, he said.
“There will be analysis in there which will well reward.”
No bespoke EU-UK trade deal
The EU chief negotiator’s recent remarks about the UK not getting a bespoke trade deal were dismissed by Mr Gove.
“Michel Barnier is a brilliant negotiator, he has done a great job so far on behalf of the EU27, but what Michel Barnier said at the beginning of stage one was not the position the EU signed up to at the end of stage one”, he said.
“By definition, every trade agreement between the EU and another country is a bespoke agreement, because the agreement between South Korea and the EU, between Japan and the EU, between Canada and the EU, and indeed between Norway and or Switzerland and the EU, they are all bespoke in that they are all different.”
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