The EU’s top negotiator, Michel Barnier, is gearing up to discuss agricultural trade alongside the Brexit ‘divorce bill’ – leading to concerns about Britain’s readiness for the talks.
According to European news service Politico, half a dozen EU officials have confirmed Mr Barnier’s team are already discussing ways to split the EU’s import quotas on agricultural products such as sheepmeat, beef and butter in preparation for early negotiation, but the issue has not appeared on the official agenda.
The process of splitting the quotas, which allow certain amounts of agricultural produce to enter the EU from countries outside the bloc, is likely to be messy and difficult.
British farmers could be seriously affected by the change if the UK’s share of the quotas allows too much to be imported, especially if they cannot export as much to the EU.
Mr Barnier’s preferred option is to lower the EU quotas and force Britain to create new ones for itself, but this would restrict the UK’s freedom to negotiate new trade deals with other countries after Brexit – something the Government would be keen to avoid.
Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said he did not have confidence that British negotiators understood the importance of these talks.
“We did not see this coming, we thought the big items on the negotiating table were around free movement of people and the Irish border”, he added.
“As long as nothing is being decided at the moment, we are fairly comfortable, but the UK needs to be taking these quotas into consideration alongside plans for other trade deals.”
Mr Stocker said the splitting of the quotas opened up the possibility of substantially increased volumes of product coming from countries such as Australia, which has a relatively low quota at the moment.
“The big danger is we start seeing significantly higher volumes of Australian product coming in, which could really have a disruptive effect.
“We need some time – this is not something which should be rushed through.”