Failure to take agricultural issues seriously in planning its post-Brexit trade agenda has played into the recent suspension of critical trade agreement negotiations with Canada. A clearer policy position on food safety and environmental standards is needed.
Back in 2016 there were realistic grounds for thinking that whatever became of the UK’s exit from the EU, at least its trade policy wouldn’t be dominated by agriculture.
From a Global Britain mindset to demand for food standard protection
That was certainly the expectation of some Brexit campaigners aiming to free the country from what they saw as the protectionism of French farmers. In their ‘Global Britain’ narrative new free trade agreements would be able to go beyond what the EU could achieve.
The broad British political consensus was similar, if perhaps a little more cautious.
Even farmers encouraged this view to a certain degree. Their strongest representative voice, the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, have always talked of the opportunities as well as risks of trade to their members.
Such attitudes may even have encouraged the government to a degree of complacency in thinking trade and agricultural issues would be easily resolved.
Warning signs have been present long before Canada talks were suspended. Indeed, they started within a couple of years of the 2016 referendum.
Public concerns over the possibility of changing food rules in trade negotiations with the United States forced the government to establish a Trade and Agriculture Commission to report on whether any FTA would require any change to statutory protections.
The UK-Australia FTA was so poorly received by farmers that prime pinister Rishi Sunak was forced to commit to not take the same approach to liberalising food imports in other negotiations.
Undoubtedly the British government has handled the issue poorly. So much so that such recent reassurances as to what its goals are in trade negotiations have simply not been believed.
Agriculture is never likely to disappear as a trade issue. This means a new government will require a more convincing narrative that still allows for liberalisation.
Given the UK needs food imports, economic security may provide a useful hook in doing so.
Ambivalent government messaging
At the heart of the UK government problems that led to the suspension of the Canada talks is that farmers have had good reason to be concerned about the policies affecting them.
Doubts as to the cost-effectiveness of UK farming have been openly expressed in the Treasury for some time.
Separately, there have been ministers who wanted the UK to change its food rules to allow for the importation of the now-totemic chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef if that was necessary to clinch a trade agreement with the United States.
Worse still, these conflicts were never fully resolved. Government statements that the UK would not change food rules to get a trade deal could not be reconciled with it still wanting a US trade deal.
Ultimately the issue was simply parked when it became clear that President Biden was uninterested in signing any FTAs.
Australia becoming the UK’s first significant negotiation for a new FTA was the second trust-busting episode for the public.
For historic reasons, New Zealand enjoyed a much greater quota than Australia to supply the EU and UK with sheep meat. This meant the Australians, with similar amounts of production production, had far more to gain from an FTA with the UK.
Canberra’s expectations that London would be most generous with their first negotiation turned out to be correct.
With virtually all agricultural quotas phased out, and little conditions attached to it, Australia got everything they wanted.
Meanwhile in the UK there was considerable public criticism of the agreements. While a few voices spoke out in favour of a new trade openness, the overwhelming sentiment was that UK farming was at risk with little market access to Australia achieved in return.
Such was the unhappiness in the farming community, including in his own constituency, that Rishi Sunak was forced to in effect apologise. An open letter to farmers promised them greater consideration and indeed protection in the future.
Unfortunately such promises were not widely believed in the UK or elsewhere.
British farmers, environmental groups, and animal welfare campaigners now believe that the government would allow in all food unconditionally if they could.
These stakeholders have developed a relatively aligned policy amongst themselves to only support further liberalisation if imports are required to meet some process and production conditions equal to those required for UK farmers.
On the other hand, other agricultural exporting countries negotiating with the UK have similar expectations that they should get as good a deal as Australia.
Although New Zealand settled for slightly less, they had better access to start with.
CPTPP talks were a success for the UK in not requiring greater market access in return for membership. This however upset Canadian farmers, who have lobbied their government not to ratify UK accession.
That attitude almost certainly also contributed to the firm Canadian position in bilateral talks.
Under all of this pressure, there is little sign of a coherent UK policy position.
How to approach a policy reset
By the end of this year there will probably be a new UK government.
Labour, who might be the one leading it, will be wise to take the issue of trade and agriculture seriously, not least in a context of farmers’ protests around the EU.
The UK is not as protectionist as many others with regard to agriculture. There is broad public acceptance that trade is needed not least because the country is not self-sufficient in food.
So, reassurance to the public on food quality may come from a sanitary and phytosanitary – SPS -agreement with the EU. Such a first step will do much to allay suspicion.
Placing all of this into an economic security context should also be helpful.
Food security must be part of such a discussion. Both Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown how supply lines can be vulnerable.
Showing that both domestic production and a diversified source of imports are required should be a basis to continue with a broadly liberal approach.
Potential trade partners would in this way also have greater clarity as to UK policy. At a time when agriculture may be returning as an issue to block trade deals, this could be to the country’s advantage.
David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.