Joyce McMillan: We’re only now hearing about Brexit’s risk to food

If the UK leaves the EU with no trade deal, exports of fish and meat to the continent could crash as tariffs are imposed (Picture: Getty)
If the UK leaves the EU with no trade deal, exports of fish and meat to the continent could crash as tariffs are imposed (Picture: Getty)
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If Theresa May had been a stateswoman, she would have saved us from the risk of a hard Brexit, writes Joyce McMillan

“Food chain disruption.” It’s an ominous little phrase, and not one with which most of us living in the West today have ever needed to acquaint ourselves. It is, though, likely to become much more familiar in coming years; and not only because of the current preposterous situation at the KFC food chain, which somehow managed to run out of chicken this week, or the climate pressures that are posing an ever more challenging question to the buyers for major supermarkets, as they scan the world for reliable supplies of everything, from grapes to garlic.

For whatever you make of Brexit, it is absolutely clear that Britain’s moment of departure from the EU, now just 13 months away, will mark a potential “food chain disruption” par excellence. One of the things that always annoyed crusty old Brexiteers about the EU was the extent to which, when we joined, we switched our food supply chains away from old Commonwealth countries – New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean – and towards our near neighbours in the EU; and

it follows that when we leave, the potential for reverse disruption will be huge, with no-one waiting, this time, to fill the gaps.

Already, the decline in EU workers heading for Britain’s fruit and vegetable fields is causing difficulties for some farmers, who are having to let valuable crops rot in the fields; and unless we negotiate the kind of smooth, not-much-change transition that many Brexiteers seem determined to prevent, our food supply system will face disruptive change – new tariffs, checks, transport routes – which is almost bound to leave us, on occasions, with unmanageable gluts of some foods, and empty supermarket shelves when it comes to others.

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This week, loud warning klaxons have been sounded both by the National Farmers Union in Scotland, and by the fish industry. Food and drink is now Scotland’s most important industry, overtaking oil and gas; 70 per cent of our exports in this sector go to European Union countries. Yet, according to a report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, our fish industry, for example, stands to lose massively – to the tune of 90 per cent of processed fish exports to Europe – if Britain crashes out of the EU without a trade deal.

All of which raises the question of why so little was heard of these gloomy prospects for Scotland’s largest industry during the EU referendum campaign. On the contrary, the impression given – and helped by Michael Gove’s debatable account of his own family history in Aberdeen – was that EU membership had been nothing but disastrous for both fishing in Scotland, and fish processing. Now, it seems that the picture was a great deal more complicated than that, with North Sea fish stocks recovering to their best levels in decades in some areas, thanks to recent EU conservation measures; and a thriving fish-processing industry largely dependent on EU exports.

All of which once again raises the question of how the UK – a country which prides itself on its tradition of parliamentary democracy – ended up taking the momentous decision to leave the EU after a referendum campaign which so conspicuously failed to expose and explore many fundamental facts of this kind. It seems likely, for example, that many business people who voted for Brexit believed what some Brexit campaigners said at the time – that the UK could leave the EU as a political institution without any question of leaving the single market and customs union. Yet in the absence of any clear pre-referendum statement from the Leave campaign, we now seem to be facing at least the possibility of the kind of “hard” Brexit for which many Leave supporters would never have voted, had it been on the ballot paper.

READ MORE: No-deal Brexit would cost Scottish economy £30bn over 5 years

If we are interested in making notes for future major referendums, in other words, then we should insist that those proposing change subject themselves produce a document on the same scale as the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future, published in November 2013, which helped to provide a clear and wide-ranging basis for the independence referendum debate. It was, of course, a flawed document, as unionist campaigners were not slow to point out; but the agenda set by it inspired a much richer, more aspirational, and more detailed discussion than the round of vacuous, identity-based ya-boo exchanges that characterised the much shorter EU debate. And there is the added bonus that the discipline of producing a “Britain’s Future Beyond the EU” document on any scale would very likely have blown the ramshackle Leave alliance apart, exposing its many weaknesses and contradictions before the vote ever took place.

We are not, though, likely ever to see another referendum more momentous than the EU one; and essentially, the lessons we can learn from it come too late. Through the mist of confusion caused by a worthless campaign often badly reported, and a wafer-thin Leave victory, it is possible to discern what a truly statesmanlike Prime Minister would have done; she would have accepted the result, acknowledged the severe misgivings of almost half of those who voted, and declared her intention of squaring the circle by applying immediately for EFTA membership, which would have left the UK in the single market, but disentangled us from the EU’s ambitions for ever closer political union. No-one would have been happy, but everyone could have lived with it.

Our Prime Minister is not a great stateswoman, though; and the only circle she seems interested in squaring is the one between the bellowing Brexit extremists on her back benches, and the more moderate Tories who are still hoping for a workable trade deal. Her failure to chart the course dictated by economic common sense and an elementary concern for national unity has left Britain bitterly divided, Northern Ireland facing a collapse of the agreement that has maintained a fragile peace there for 20 years, and large sections of British business, in Scotland and elsewhere, facing uncertainty and possible disaster. It’s a long charge sheet for a woman who has been Prime Minister for only 20 months; and when and if “food chain disruption” begins in earnest, things – for Theresa May – can only get worse, and worse again.