Fox’s free trade deals threaten future of British agriculture, warns farming chief
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is making farmers’ unions nervous | Peter Powell/WPA Pool for Getty Images
LONDON – British farming could be placed at a “huge disadvantage” and would struggle to compete with global rivals if the government pursues free trade deals with the likes of Australia and New Zealand after Brexit, the head of the leading farming union has said.
Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, said that the “buccaneer attitude” of Trade Secretary Liam Fox made him “very nervous” of free-trade agreements with countries that could farm on a larger scale and with different regulatory standards from British competitors.
Raymond also said that farmers’ incomes would be hit if Prime Minister Theresa May took Britain out of the European single market or could not secure tariff-free access.
His warning on free trade is an early sign that the government’s determination to strike deals with non-EU countries after Brexit could meet with stiff opposition from domestic industries, such as farming, that depend on protected EU markets.
“I would be very nervous of this buccaneer attitude of Liam Fox where he says he’s going to strike up free-trade deals in parts of the world,” Raymond told POLITICO.
“When he says we’re going to have a free-trade deal with Australia that says to me that’s maybe motor cars to Australia and agricultural products back to the U.K.
“We need to banish this word ‘unskilled’ workers. If they end up with some form of points system or looking at the needs of certain sectors, food and farming should be high up the agenda” — Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union
“We would struggle to compete against our Australian cousins. They’ve got scale, they don’t abide by the same level of regulation, they use crop protection products that are banned in the U.K. We would struggle to compete with New Zealand…That could put us in a very detrimental position.”
He said that “on scale” and in terms of regulatory burdens, British farmers would also find it difficult to compete in a free trade context with South American partners, such as the beef powerhouses of Argentina and Brazil. It would be “imperative” that any such deals took account of “standards of production,” he said.
“If we’re just going to open up the barriers and open up the ports to the cheapest products, irrespective of how they’re produced that would put us at a huge disadvantage,” he added.
However, he said that Britain should seek “opportunities” beyond the EU. “We probably haven’t been as good as we could have been in the past. We know that British products are respected around the world,” he said.
Vital foreign workers
Raymond also called on the government to commit to a seasonal visa scheme to allow foreign workers to come to the U.K. temporarily to work in fruit picking, and urged that permanent jobs in farming and food production be regarded as skilled labor, and exempted from curbs on immigration.
“Philip Hammond says skilled people will be allowed in,” he said. “We need to banish this word ‘unskilled’ workers. If they end up with some form of points system or looking at the needs of certain sectors, food and farming should be high up the agenda.”
His comments come amid growing disquiet in the agricultural sector about the damage that Brexit could do to the industry if tariff-free access to the single market is not secured.
If Britain were to exit the union and function under World Trade Organisation rules, tariffs imposed by EU trading partners would make the farming industry “uncompetitive,” one senior expert warned a House of Lords Committee Thursday.
Peter Hardwick, head of exports at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, told peers: “I don’t think any arrangement which involves tariffs will work. It will put up the price of goods for consumers and it will be politicians, not me, that have to explain to consumers when that happens.”
“The British are frankly in a fantasy land if they think that leaving the European Union, for food, is a good thing. This is bonkers if I may use very accurate policy language” — Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London
Speaking at the House of Lords EU External Affairs sub-committee, he said that across the beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, cereals, horticulture and dairy sectors, between 70 and 90 per cent of exports went to the EU. Citing the example of the pig industry, he said tariffs that the EU could impose on Britain under WTO rules, if the country failed to secure a trade deal, would lead to a doubling of the prices of British product on the German market, risking “terminal” harm to the British pig industry’s competitiveness.
Leaving the European customs union would also introduce significant new administrative burdens for British farmers and food manufacturers, he said.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, told the same committee that small businesses would struggle to cope with the new cost burdens.
“The British are frankly in a fantasy land if they think that leaving the European Union, for food, is a good thing. This is bonkers if I may use very accurate policy language,” he said. He added that the changes could also be “cultural”, saying that in the past 50 years, British food culture had “Europeanized” and gone from “brown sludge food, the legacy of spam and tinned peaches” into “something quite remarkable.”
He compared Brexit’s likely impact on the food system to that of the world wars.
A Defra spokesperson said supporting farmers would form “an important part of our exit from the EU.”