The Government has set out its plans for a future trading relationship with the EU in a landmark White Paper. An ‘Alternative’ White Paper has also been leaked.
Abi Kay explores what the two documents mean for farmers.
Government White Paper
This document outlines the official Government position which will be put to the EU as part of the Brexit negotiations.
It proposes a ‘free trade area’ for agri-food products, with no tariffs or quotas applied on either side.
The UK hopes to get the freedom to control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world.
Common rule book
Under the plans, the UK would leave the Common Agricultural Policy, but a ‘common rule book’ for the UK and EU on agri-food has been proposed.
The paper said this harmonisation would cover ‘only those rules necessary to provide for frictionless trade at the border’, excluding areas such as food labelling.
In practice, this would mean the UK Government and devolved administrations continue to apply existing and future EU rules which protect human, animal and plant health, reducing the scope for trade deals with other countries which have different regulations.
The document acknowledges the UK would ‘not have a vote on relevant rule changes’, but demands its experts be consulted on the same basis as member states when EU laws are changed.
Such a commitment would bind the UK’s hands when it comes to regulation around plant protection products, fertilisers, or diseases such as TB, but it could allow agri-food products to move between the UK and EU without the need for border checks.
Access to EU systems
The UK has requested to maintain its access to the EU’s food safety and animal health systems, which trace high-risk products and provide a platform for information about potential contamination to be shared.
The Local Government Association recently suggested losing access to these systems would increase the risk of a new horsemeat scandal.
The paper also called for new co-operation arrangements to be established to allow EU and UK regulators to work together to prevent unsafe products from reaching the public or harming the environment.
The document claims that the restrictive nature of the proposed common rulebook would mean the UK would have the freedom to apply higher animal welfare standards which do not affect the functioning of the free trade area.
It goes on to namecheck ‘welfare in transport’ and the ‘treatment of live animal exports’ as two matters which could be addressed – though did not mention an outright ban on live exports.
Geographical Indicators (GI)
The UK has proposed setting up its own GI scheme, which protects locally produced food from cheap imitations.
There had been some concern that the Government would drop these protections, which the US is known to dislike.
NFU, NFU Cymru, NFU Scotland and the Ulster Farmers’ Union
Presidents Minette Batters, John Davies, Andrew McCornick and Ivor Ferguson: “We are pleased to see the proposals agreed by the Cabinet last week included in this White Paper, particularly given that the four UK farming unions have long-maintained that free and frictionless trade between the EU and UK is crucial for food and farming.
“Although the details are yet to be agreed, farmers will welcome this additional clarity on what the Government’s plan for our future trading relationship will be. It is our sector’s hope that we maintain the high levels of trade in agricultural goods between the UK and the EU, our largest market for agri-food products.”
CLA director of policy Christopher Price: “Since the referendum, the CLA has called for frictionless trade and movement of goods across EU borders, so we are pleased the Government has recognised the importance of this for agricultural products.
“We want to see exports for UK food outside the EU grow, and we think that increasing free and fair trade between the UK and other markets outside the EU is a positive government ambition.
“We will look closely at all of the details proposed in the White Paper to ensure they work for the food and farming industry.”
Food and Drink Federation
Ian Wright, Food and Drink Federation chief executive: “The UK Government is right to make no-friction trade with our most important trading partner its number one Brexit priority; it is extremely encouraging that the White Paper seeks to do so.
“We need to understand much more about how the common rulebook will work in practice. Businesses and consumers urgently need clarity and confidence in the process for both following and deviating from EU rules.
“It is welcome that the UK will seek to participate and influence EU technical committees and have access to RASFF, but many questions still remain around our valued relationship with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).”
The White Paper will now be presented to the EU as the basis for negotiations on a future trading relationship.
There are some concerns that it will not be accepted by the EU because it attempts to split the single market for goods and separate out services.
In a statement on the paper, the European Parliament referenced the ‘non-divisibility’ of the four freedoms and the integrity of the single market, warning there could be no ‘sector-by-sector’ approach to the talks.
Chief negotiator Michel Barnier also said he would look at the paper ‘in light of’ guidelines agreed by the other EU member states, which explicitly rule out ‘cherry picking’.
This paper, which has been leaked to the website Conservative Home, is thought to be an earlier version of the official Government position, and the one which former Brexit Secretary David Davis preferred.
Recent reports have suggested the delay in publishing the official White Paper was caused by a furious row between Ministers and civil servants over who had responsibility for writing the document, with around a third of the content completely changed over the past few weeks.
Rather than a common rule book for agri-food, this paper proposed the UK and EU agree to achieve the same outcomes, with flexibility on how the outcomes are delivered.
The concept of outcome equivalence, used in the EU-Canada free trade deal, would give the UK much more freedom to sign trade deals with other countries which have different food production standards.
The document said actions or positions could be considered equivalent if scientific evidence showed they achieved the same outcomes.
If a new policy did not result in a ‘significant increase in risk’, a term which would be jointly defined by the UK and EU, it would be deemed equivalent.
Assessment of the level of risk would be considered by a sanitary and phytosanitary committee, and if the committee failed to reach an agreement, the issue would be escalated to an ‘overarching joint committee’ or ‘dispute resolution body’.
Access to EU systems
On access to EU systems, this version of the paper is similar to the Government position, calling for ‘appropriate access and exchange of data and IT systems to ensure food safety and protect public, animal and plant health’.
It does not explicitly name which IT systems the UK would continue to seek access to, but it does, unlike the official paper, say ongoing collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would be necessary.
There is far less detail on GIs in this paper, which simply said there should be the ‘freest possible future economic relationship in regard to GIs’.