If a quick and comprehensive trade deal giving UK farmers continued access to their European markets cannot be achieved, transition arrangements that avoid the Brexit “cliff edge” will be vital to allow the industry time to adapt, farming leaders have argued.
With farming topping the league of industries affected by the UK’s Brexit deal, all ears were yesterday focused on Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech outlining the course the country was set to take once Article 50 was triggered.
Access to the EU market without barriers has always been a priority for usScott Walker
With access to EU markets – which currently account for three-quarters of all the UK’s agricultural exports – playing a paramount role in the industry, yesterday’s confirmation that the UK would quit the single market was a bitter, if not unexpected, blow.
NFU Scotland’s chief executive, Scott Walker, said: “For farming and the food industry, access to the EU market without barriers and any new obstacles has always been a priority for us. Next to the UK, Europe remains the largest destination for Scottish food exports and a market that offers us a good opportunity for growth.”
He said that now that the industry knew for sure that the Prime Minister had ruled out staying in the single market, she would have to deliver on her other promises, saying: “It is fundamentally important to the Scottish agricultural industry that the Prime Minister achieves her objective of a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU.”
The issue is of particular importance to the sheep sector, with more than 40 per cent of the country’s total production going to the EU – and the National Sheep Association (NSA) said that the government was set to take away the industry’s biggest export market “with no clear plan for how to replace it”.
“We know we produce a world-class product, but the decision made today does not come with the planning, transition periods or resources that are essential to establish new trade deals with the countries that want to buy our lamb,” said NSA chief executive Phil Stocker, who added that the whole structure of the industry was now in jeopardy.
Similar threats were identified by the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), the agri-supply trade body, which said that the implications of a “divorce which did not encompass either single market access or customs union membership” were potentially “very damaging” for UK agriculture and food production.
The English NFU council said it had “legitimate and important concerns” over the proposals for a free trade agreement.
“We know these kind of deals normally take years to conclude and do not cover all products,” said the union’s president, Meurig Raymond.
“If a quick and comprehensive deal cannot be achieved it would be absolutely vital that there are appropriate phased arrangements to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge to allow Britain’s farmers to adapt – especially given that farming is a long term industry where farmers are making decisions now without knowing what a future trading environment will look like.”