A self-evident statement of management speak is that ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’.
No doubt whoever first thought of that believed it was very clever, although in reality it is a prime example of stating the obvious. It is however a message the government has not taken on board over Brexit. It may have plenty of plans on paper, drawn up by thousands of civil servants, but the message from Brussels is that they are not the right plans if the UK wants a negotiated deal to exit the EU.
This reflects the difficulty of negotiating when the odds are 27 to one against you. It also reflects the reality that in a difficult negotiation you need to be flexible, and have alternative plans. But Theresa may is finding that impossible, because she is locked in like a chess player that cannot escape check by the demands of the pro-Brexit Conservatives. Some even claimed this week that the toppling of Mrs May and a potential general election would be a price worth paying to avoid any form of customs union with the EU.
As this debate becomes more politically heated, it is hard to see where there can be compromise. With less than a year to go until Brexit happens, and as the second anniversary of the referendum vote approaches, it is impossible to see a compromise that would save face on both sides. This is unusual, because officials driving negotiations can normally find ways to sooth over-heated politics to find a diplomatic way ahead. Over Brexit, relations between London and Brussels are getting worse by the day, and officials privately admit they see no way to deliver compromise. This has moved beyond sabre rattling to a real and potentially bloody battle. Rather than a sensible debate about how to ensure both economies prosper after Brexit, it is more akin to Gulliver’s Travels and the battle between the small and big endians over how to open a boiled egg. That book was a satire on politics, published in 1726, and today neither Brussels or London have learned the lessons Jonathan Swift sought to teach.
The result is massive uncertainty for farmers, whether they voted leave or remain. That choice is now irrelevant, as everyone is in the same boat in uncharted waters. Worryingly, those in charge are more interested in big politics than practical consequences. The problems are on many fronts. The Irish border question could yet force some form of bespoke EU/UK customs club or association. This would be an untried position short of a customs union but further reaching than a negotiated trade deal. This would restrict the UK’s freedom to trade with the rest of the world outside trade deals in place for the EU. For agriculture this might well be a good outcome. However the decision will have nothing to do with good or bad economic fortune. It will be driven by politics and the battle over Europe within the Cabinet and Conservative party.
For farmers the guarantee on support is that it will continue for the lifetime of this parliament, which should be until 2022. However the government is on a knife edge and depends on support from the DUP. Some in that party have threatened to withdraw that support over any customs union arrangement that separates Northern Ireland from normal UK trading. If a general election were triggered there will be no guarantee about farm support continuing. The result for agriculture would be even greater uncertainty and the whole Brexit decision making process would be thrown into even worse chaos.
The priority for farmers is a support system that will ensure those producing food, as opposed to public goods, are not discriminated against compared to their competitors in the EU-27 and beyond. The industry then needs assurances about trade. It needs to see firm evidence that, regardless of politics, the government is pulling out all the stops to ensure we have continued access to what are now, and will remain, our key EU-27 markets. This might run counter to pursuing global markets and it is certainly not about the government using tariff free food imports as a loss leader to buy deals. Support and trade would be a firm foundation on which all other areas around agriculture can be built. Without that sound foundation agriculture is at risk. Politicians need to accept this is more important than petty party politics in London.