Just before Parliament was dissolved for the general election, the House of Lords published a report into the serious concerns about Brexit in the agricultural sector, which employs almost half a million people in the UK and adds around £10 billion to the economy. In the same week, I received this from a leading company in the agricultural sector (Gleadell):
“If a hard Brexit turns out to be the order of the day, and World Trade Organisation rules are applied to UK agri-products traded with the EU and the rest of the world, then imports and exports of grain, non-grain feed ingredients and associated products will become harder and markets more expensive to access.”
“The implementation of tariffs and quotas will mean not only potentially higher import and export costs, but also the likelihood of increased difficulty in being able to access other markets or being able to secure long-standing essential supplies.”
This assessment is not just true for grains and feedstuff. It is true for the wider agricultural sector and beyond. Leaving the EU – especially the hard Brexit that the government wants which includes leaving both the single market and the customs union – would mean that we leave our agricultural sector:
- facing barriers – possibly tariffs, but certainly red tape and bureaucratic costs – when selling in our main export market.
- facing regulatory problems, as our rules on sanitary standards, packaging, labelling, etc. diverge from the rest of Europe (unless we decided to follow those rules anyway even though we will no longer have a say on them).
- facing uncertainty about farmers’ income: will the UK government replace all the subsidies currently paid by the EU?
- facing extra competition from America and other continents, as our government desperately seeks new trade deals, conceding access to our market for agricultural goods in exchange for access to their markets for our financial services.
- finding it more difficult to recruit extra labour at harvest time as new restrictions are put in place on free movement.
The House of Lords report reflects very similar concerns. It recognises that withdrawing from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which plays a fundamental role in regulating and supporting UK agriculture and upon which many farmers in the UK rely for funding to sustain their businesses, is extremely challenging. Wider rural communities also benefit from EU development programmes. UK farmers will need time and clarity from Government to allow them to adapt to any changes in the regulatory or funding system, if we go ahead with Brexit. The government has only offered limited assurances that subsidies will continue, funded by UK taxpayers.
The EU is the UK’s single largest trading partner in agri-food products – about 80% of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU. Directly in line with the Gleadell’s concerns, the Lords’ report recognises that post-Brexit, the UK will have to develop its own tariff schedules and negotiate new trading relations with the EU and the wider world. UK farmers risk facing high tariffs and significant non-tariff barriers when exporting, and competition from lower-priced imports domestically. Both tariff and non-tariff barriers could disrupt integrated supply chains between the UK and the EU, and pose a particular challenge for the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, the UK’s agri-food sector relies extensively on other EU countries for both permanent and seasonal labour. This labour ranges across all skill levels. Without access to EU labour, both the agricultural sector and food manufacturers will face severe difficulties. This is an immediate challenge, which the Government must address urgently as the UK approaches withdrawal. Theresa May’s continued pursuit of the ideological goal to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands – despite never having achieved anything like that in the past seven years – will create serious difficulties for the agricultural industry and have a damaging effect on this sector. Like many of the Brexit-at-any-cost policies advocated by the right wing of her party, the genuine concerns of experts in a very important sector are being ignored, with potentially disastrous consequences.
As the election campaign has continued, there seems to be increasing concern among individual farmers and farming organisations that these serious challenges are not being satisfactorily addressed. Interviewing several farmers, Times journalists have discovered that they fear for their future outside of the EU for the reasons identified by above. Behind the slogans of the advocates of Brexit, there seems to be little serious policy, thought or preparation for how this sector can survive outside of the single market and customs union.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the new government will have to start listening to these concerns in order to maintain the livelihoods of tens of thousands of agricultural workers, to protect the reliability and quality of our food supplies, and to ensure sustained management of our rural landscape.
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