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Facing jeopardy on Brexit

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APPEARING before the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in October last year, Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State at Defra, reassured MPs that her department was ‘motoring’ along with its programme to assess the issues that needed to be addressed as the UK left the European Union (VR, October 29, 2016, vol 179, p 420). Anyone hoping that, in her speech to the Oxford Farming Conference last week, Mrs Leadsom would provide a clearer idea of the direction in which Defra was driving on Brexit, is likely to have been left disappointed.

Despite stating her belief that leaving the European Union provides a ‘once in a generation opportunity to take Britain forward’ and that ‘our best days as a food and farming nation lie ahead of us’, Mrs Leadsom's speech contained little in terms of concrete proposals for achieving this vision. Instead, she said she was meeting with farmers, industry groups, scientists and ministers from across the UK to consider ‘every aspect of our negotiations to leave the EU’. Defra, she explained, had eight different work streams in its EU exit programme, and was carrying out detailed analysis, ranging from market access and labour, to trade and agricultural land use policy. She also confirmed that two Green Papers would be published, one considering the future of food and farming, the other considering the environment and that, as the next step in the process, Defra would launch a major consultation to gather opinions on these.

Regarding what she described as ‘the other side’ to the UK's negotiations, namely tackling EU bureaucracy, Mrs Leadsom said she would look at scrapping the rules that she believed held the UK back, and would focus instead on what worked best for the country. There would, she pledged, be ‘no more six-foot EU billboards littering the landscape, no more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree, and no more ridiculous three-crop rule’.

In contrast to Mrs Leadsom's optimism about the future for UK agriculture, a report from the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, published on January 4, warned that farmers could face ‘triple jeopardy’ as the UK's relationship with international markets begins to change. The committee's inquiry examined the future for the natural environment after the EU referendum, looking at the international, legislative and financial issues that the Government must manage successfully if it is to fulfil its manifesto commitment to ‘be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it’.

In the report of its inquiry,1 the committee warns that leaving the Common Agricultural Policy will threaten the viability of some farms, while trade agreements that impose tariff or non-tariff barriers to UK farm exports could threaten farm and food business incomes. New trading relationships with countries outside of the EU could lead to increased competition from countries with lower food standards, animal welfare standards and environmental protection. UK farmers could be put at a competitive disadvantage, and it could be harder to agree and implement a strong future UK environmental policy.

The committee recommends seven areas for actions that, it says, must be taken by Defra and other government departments at the outset of the process of leaving the EU, both before the UK begins negotiations and in the months after triggering Article 50. Failure to do so, the committee warns, risks weakening environmental protections once the UK has left the EU, disrupting food production and presenting risks for farm businesses.

One of the recommended actions is that the Government assesses the resources needed to replace existing EU environmental funding to ensure farm businesses remain viable, and that animal welfare, food security and food safety are protected. Another action is to undertake a gap analysis to establish whether additional animal welfare and food safety standards legislation is going to be needed. The committee also recommends that Defra's planned Green Papers on food and farming and environmental protection are published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered, so as to inform the Government's negotiating position. It calls for a Government guarantee that it will not trade away environmental protections, animal welfare and food safety standards as part of the negotiations to leave, or as part of future trade deals.

It is clear from the committee's report that it believes there is a lot of work to be done before negotiations to leave the EU begin. If the Prime Minister triggers Article 50 by the end of March this year as planned, then the time to develop the UK's negotiating position is running out. Entering negotiations without a clear idea of the outcome the UK wants to achieve puts the country on the back foot and runs the risk that, ultimately, no-one is happy with the result. In the face of barriers to trade and increased competition, not having to display an EU billboard could seem like poor compensation. If Defra is indeed ‘motoring’ on Brexit, then perhaps it is time it put its foot down.

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