When the Brexit debate began the key issue for agriculture was removing regulations.
It is now clear that this is not going to happen. Instead we will be swapping EU regulations for similar rules set in London.
There will perhaps be more flexibility, thanks to devolution, but that cannot be taken for granted. The government has all but said that we will stick with EU environmental rules, so a lot of the regulations farmers hoped to escape will remain. Indeed thinking in London on support structures seems to be around an extension of EU greening concepts, which ironically were one of the main things farmers voted leave to escape.
Even back in 2016 Brexit was not a cut and dried issue. People had different reasons for voting the way they did. Outside agriculture many voted because they were opposed to free movement of people and to Brussels having any say in UK policy. With time it has become clear many things are not going to change. The big change since 2016 is that the whole Brexit process now hinges on securing a withdrawal deal that will effectively leave us where we were so far as agriculture is concerned. In these circumstances many must now be asking if it would not have been easier just to leave things as they were and gamble on the UK being able to lead other member states disenchanted with aspects of EU policy.
That is all now water under the bridge and even if the withdrawal agreement is signed it is only, in University Challenge terms, a starter for ten. In agriculture it raises as many issues as it solves. Indeed the Irish backstop that is causing such angst will be easier to solve than other aspects. The withdrawal deal makes the case for frictionless trade, which is what the UK needs in agriculture. At the same time it says there will not be a common rule book on standards, despite the UK offering to fully meet EU environmental regulations. These seem irreconcilable, if worthy, objectives. Free trade can only be on the basis of two countries accepting each other’s rules. Since the UK as yet has no rules in this area, having been part of Europe for 45 years, it is hard to see how this could work. This is why when agreement is reached, one way or the other, there will be months and even years of negotiations ahead. For farmers this means the certainty they want will remain elusive.
As the issue of escape from regulation falls down the agenda it is becoming clear that the reality of Brexit is about trade. It is hard to tell with politicians when they are spinning for the outcome they want and when they are being candid. We have had the example of the former Brexit minster, Dominic Raab, claiming that the cabinet has already agreed there will be no tariffs on food imports to prevent price rises. Then Michael Gove headed for the English NFU annual general meeting to say the opposite. Reading between the lines Gove was trying to send a message to Dublin that if Ireland fails to give way over the backstop its number one industry would be paying the price by losing tariff free access to its biggest market. This is high stakes politics, and the result is that farmers, like everyone else, have no confidence in politicians to deliver a deal that will not destroy key parts of UK industry. This is why if a deal with many imperfections does eventually emerge, people will be so relieved to see agreement that they will overlook those imperfections.
Trade is the make or break issue and that is no surprise. In 2016 this all looked very simple. We were told that the rest of the world beyond the EU was waiting to secure trade deals with the UK. Now it is clear that given a choice between a free trade deal with the EU and 500 million citizens or the UK with 60 million it’s a numbers game.
Equally the government’s belief that existing trade deals with the EU could be rolled over to the UK seems overly optimistic.
This is another reason why we are even now only at the start of the Brexit process. In
journey terms, after two years we are close to getting the key in the ignition, but some way off even starting the engine.