LONDON — Failure to secure full access to the single market after Brexit could be “absolutely disastrous” for agriculture, according to Britain’s biggest farming union.
Prime minister Theresa May confirmed in a speech on Tuesday morning that she would pursue a “hard Brexit”, shorthand for pulling Britain out of the EU free-trade area in order to gain full control over immigration from the EU.
Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), told BI ahead of the speech last week that she was “alarmed” by May’s plans.
She said: “We’re a large economy, we import a vast amount from the European Union, and they are our closest trading customer. I cannot quite see, and I am alarmed to see, why the prime minister is turning her back on the single market.”
“To not have access to the single market — certainly for some sectors, the sheep sector for example — would be absolutely disastrous. We’d be trading at 51% World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, and we’d be priced out of the marketplace immediately,” she added.
Seventy-two per cent of Britain’s agricultural exports go to the EU, and some sectors are almost entirely dependent on trade with the rest of Europe. Of £300 million UK lamb exports last year, £290 million came from sales to Europe, while 78% of wheat and barley exports went to the EU.
WTO tariffs would apply if the UK failed to negotiate any sort of deal with the EU by the time it exits the union.
May said on Tuesday that the UK will likely seek a transition deal with the bloc until a UK-EU free trade deal has been struck, meaning that an immediate switch to punitive WTO tariffs is unlikely. But an NFU statement released yesterday said that “these kinds of deals normally take years to conclude and do not cover all products.”
I cannot quite see, and I am alarmed to see, why the prime minister is turning her back on the single market — Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers Union
The NFU Council backed a resolution to remain in the European Union in the run-up to the June referendum, although it says Brexit could herald positive opportunities for the sector.
Another issue facing the sector is the potential labour shortages if the government presses ahead with plans to curb immigration after Brexit. Batters dismissed a suggestion by agriculture minister Andrea Leadsom that the gap could be plugged by youth apprenticeship schemes. Leadsom suggested in October that young Britons could start doing the seasonal jobs in food production usually performed by seasonal EU workers.
Batters said that the proposal “doesn’t even touch the sides of [the problem].” She said: “We already have a thousand on-farm apprenticeships. For seasonal picking, apprenticeships aren’t suitable anyway, because they would not form part of an apprenticeship scheme.
“We’re living with an ongoing retail price war; food has never been cheaper, and the supply chain is under enormous price pressure anyway. That has to be all factored in, and the government has to realise that. You cannot say that apprenticeships would do it. You would need massive cultural reform within your education sector which signposts people to these jobs that EU workers have been doing.”
The government appears to moving towards a compromise, however. The NFU welcomed May’s acknowledgement on Tuesday that “access to a reliable workforce from overseas is vital for many British industries,” and believes the government may favour a seasonal agricultural workers scheme after Brexit, similar to the system already in place.