Brussels is up for a free trade deal

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EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan believes that the EU-27 and the UK can sort out a free trade deal as part of the Brexit deal that is finally arrived at.

“And this can be achieved, provided the UK remains within the Customs’ Union,” Mr Hogan explained.

“There cannot be any bespoke arrangements for farming and food.

“The needs of both sectors must be fully assimilated within the context of an over-arching trade agreement. However, a commitment to such arrangements by both parties will allow for the introduction of transitional tariff-free trade arrangements until such times as a final deal is arrived at.”

Mr Hogan stressed that the EU will not lower its commitment to the highest traceability, environmental and conservation standards, where food production is concerned.

“And this will be a cornerstone of the negotiating position taken by the EU when it comes to agreeing future trade arrangements with the UK.”

Mr Hogan made these comments while speaking at this week’s Brexit conference, hosted by the IFA in Dublin.

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) President Barclay Bell also addressed the event.

He said that cheap food imports into the UK must not be allowed to become a consequence of Brexit.

“Such arrangements would totally undermine the farming and food sectors.

“There must be full equivalence of standards, where food imports are concerned,” he said.

Mr Bell confirmed that all the UK farming unions will do everything possible to ascertain the position of the UK government with regard to future farm support and agri-food trade arrangements, in the run-up to the June 8 general election.

“A Green Paper has been promised by Whitehall on both these matters.

“But whether or not, this materialises before the election is now very debatable.”

The Union president said that many farmers in Northern Ireland had voted to leave the EU in last year’s membership referendum.

“In a lot of cases, this was a knee jerk reaction to poor farmgate prices during the previous years and ever tightening regulations.

“Prior to the referendum, the UFU took the position that, in the absence of any clear argument to leave the EU, then the United Kingdom should remain in Europe. But we fully recognised, from the outset, that the UK’s membership of the EU would always be a contentious issue among rank and file union members.

Mr Bell admitted that his organisation now faces an uphill task to secure UK government recognition of the value which the farming and food industry delivers to rural economies.

“Front and centre within this debate will be the retention of the current direct payment regime for farmers.

“The figures clearly confirm that every £1 invested in agriculture delivers £7.40 to rural towns and villages.

“The UFU wants to ensure the maintenance of a sustainable farming sector in Northern Ireland post-Brexit. And this core message must be communicated to the UK government in the strongest possible terms.”