A transitional trade deal with Europe to soften the blow of Brexit could be more important for UK agriculture than any new deals with the rest of the world
A round table organised by Euractiv in London this week heard a robust and workable deal was essential in order to prevent a trade war with Europe, whereby both parties raised or created tariffs on each other.
Martin Haworth, director of strategy for the NFU said Britain’s food and farming sector was ’very dependent’ on the EU market and where trade was concerned, there were more threats than opportunities.
Highlighting the ’unrealism’ regarding selling into new markets, he said trading negotiations in agriculture were notoriously difficult to arrange.
He added: "Our concern is that as we are not going to get free, frictionless access to the single market, we have to look at second best."
He said these ’second best’ measures were likely to include higher customs tariffs, and a likelihood of disruption to trade, which, for perishable goods, would be disastrous for the industry.
"We could go back to a situation where we had barriers to trade," said Mr Howarth.
"The prime minister said no deal is better than a bad deal - I dispute that.
"A default to World Trade Organisation rules would be much more damaging."
Peter Hardwick, head of international trade development, AHDB, said the sheep and beef sectors were dependent on the EU market, being 96 per cent and 85 per cent reliant, respectively.
"There are some examples where we have moved trade from the EU and while these opportunities exist there is not a quick fix," said Mr Hardwick, adding UK pork access to China took seven years to bring to fruition.
"It is difficult and it is a long term project and is not just something we can turn on overnight."
Mr Hardwick said continued access to the EU was ’crucial’ but the logistics around this, including country of origin rules and customs controls could prove ’more difficult than tariff barriers per se’.
He said about 4 million vehicles passed through the Channel Tunnel, with one every eight seconds at present. If border checks delayed these journeys, for example, by just one minute each, ’you can see how that would disrupt trade’.
Mr Haworth added: "We need the comfort of knowing we have a reasonable transition agreement like when we joined the EU.
"After 43 years as a member it is going to take longer to exit than it was to enter."
Phil Stocker, chief executive, National Sheep Association, agreed the exit from the EU was going to be ’extremely turbulent’ and the industry should be looking to increase its self sufficiency.
Lord Robin Teverson, chairman, EU Energy and Environment sub-committee, said the argument that Brexit would signal the end of Britain’s involvement with the CAP and the regulation that went with it was false.
"Nothing could be less true," he said.
"The relationship we have with the EU is going to be critical."
Green MEP Molly Scott Cato criticised Defra for delaying the publication of its 25 year plan for farming and the environment.
Earlier this week she said Brexit was ‘swamping’ Defra and preventing the department from drawing up plans for when Britain leaves the EU.
The accusation came in the wake of a response to a question submitted by Caroline Lucas MP seeking clarity on how many full-time equivalent civil servants were working on the EU exit programme and the budget allocated to that programme.
Farming Minister George Eustice admitted the Government had commissioned no research in the past six months to inform the development of post-Brexit agricultural and environmental policy.
The MEP also she said she feared the Government would prioritise the City over rural areas in a Brexit deal, a move which could be detrimental to the countryside economy.