FW opinion: No-deal Brexit – project fear or project reality?

Farmers, it would seem, are as divided as ever when it comes to Brexit.

The regular flow of letters and emails into the Farmers Weekly mailbox, and the constant commentary on social media, tells us as much. Like society at large, the farming community is split.

See also: Like lemmings, we are being led over the Brexit cliff

Those who still back “leave” are crying out for a bit of positivity.

They speak of the UK as a “great trading nation” with its agriculture “the envy of the world”. “We’ve survived and prospered on our own in the past, and will do so again,” they argue.

Those who still back “remain”, in contrast, warn of the dangers of leaving the European Union without a deal. They fear the effect this will have on the terms of trade, on the level of taxpayer support and the availability of labour.

The leavers dismiss these concerns as “project fear”. The remainers say it is a simple assessment of the evidence. Neither group is inclined to change its mind.

Uncertain times ahead

But whichever argument you subscribe to, the outlook is fraught with uncertainty.

This week’s machinations in Westminster and Brussels suggest  a smooth departure from the EU is now an impossibility. And, while the threat of a “no-deal” Brexit has been made more difficult by parliament, the possibility is still very much alive and kicking.

Such an outcome would leave UK agriculture even more exposed to the vagaries of the global marketplace. And the dangers of that have been thrown into sharp focus in recent days with the announcement by Washington of new 25% tariffs on EU and UK food exports, in retaliation for subsidies paid under the European Airbus project.

These are due to kick in next week and will target pigmeat, dairy products, wool and Scotch whisky, with the UK very much in the firing line.

So, would we be better off outside the EU and doing our own trade deal with Washington? Seemingly not. A new economic analysis, leaked from Defra and obtained by Greenpeace, says the UK will come under considerable pressure to accept US food produced to lower standards.

Cheap food imports

The Trump administration in Washington is adamant that agriculture should be included in any free-trade deal, while the leaked document suggests the Department for International Trade will also put pressure on Defra to accept cheap food imports.

But perhaps the greatest concern as “no-deal” moves into view is the government’s refusal to amend the proposed tariff schedules it set out last March. These would see UK food exports to the EU facing full tariffs, while imports would only face reduced or zero tariffs.

Despite months of intensive lobbying by food and farming groups, pointing out the devastating effect this would have on the sector, the government has turned a deaf ear to these complaints.

On Tuesday this week, it did announce some amendments – for road haulage, bioethanol and clothing. But it made no changes for food and agricultural goods.

As a consequence, beef would pay tariffs of 84% on exports and 45% on imports, Cheddar cheese would pay 57% on exports and 7% on imports, and wheat would pay 53% on exports while imports would be tariff-free.

The hypocrisy is clear. While UK farmers are being forced to produce to ever-higher animal welfare and environmental standards, imports will be allowed in from countries without these safeguards, driving higher-cost domestic producers out of business.

Project fear? Many would say this is project reality.

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