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The 12-point clarification by prime minister Teresa May of the British stance in negotiating the UK’s role as the country leaves the EU has been met with a degree of scepticism by the British farming community.
The announcement that leaving the EU would also mean leaving the Single Market and would also most likely mean that the UK would not be part of the Customs’ Union has produced a feeling of trepidation for an agriculture sector that to date has relied heavily on exports to other EU countries as well as subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy.
While the support the sector receives has been guaranteed, for a period, following the exit from the EU, the potential loss to trade or the need to impose high tariffs on food, agriculture and livestock exports has caused great concern.
The National Sheep Association is warning that the Government’s decision to pursue ‘hard Brexit’ presents a huge risk to the UK sheep industry.
The NSA says that it would cause disruption to existing trade structures, hamper the meat processing sector which relies on migrant labour and create unfair competition from free trade deals.
Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, said: “It was inevitable the EU referendum result would mean our existing trade structures would face disruption, but NSA has consistently been of the view that ongoing tariff-free access to the EU market was essential to avoid disruption and price volatility.
“We made it clear we wanted to remain in the single market, in the knowledge too that our industry relies heavily on migrant labour.”
He added that Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement presents a huge risk to the UK sheep industry when she talks of the ‘freest possible trade’ but very clearly outside of the single market.
“This suggests the acceptance of a level of tariffs, the result of which will be industry paying for any market access it can get to work economically,” he said.
“This is a continuation of passing costs back to industry within a free market economy and is an approach that clashes with our current policy of the provision of plentiful food on shop shelves at competitively low prices.”
NSA said the sheep sector is at particular risk, because up to 40 per cent of UK lamb production is exported each year, with 96 per cent of that going into the EU single market.
Mr Stocker added: “NSA would like to once again remind Ministers and policy makers that sheep farming is an essential primary industry that contributes positively to food production, environmental and landscape management, provides the foundation for much of our farmland ecology, and supports many rural communities and economies.
“Tariffs placed on sheep meat exports into the EU would dramatically reduce our competitiveness and the volumes sold there.
“The large-scale processing end of our industry, which has been encouraged by policy direction and market drivers and which drives much of our export volume, is massively reliant on migrant labour and has little hope of filling that labour demand effectively with the UK labour force.
“We have repeatedly highlighted the value of our industry and said clearly what we need to continue to thrive into the future. We understand we have to leave the negotiators to negotiate and that they have to set out a starting position – but it appears that the starting position is to say we want it all and refuse to consider any plan B.
“Unlike during the referendum campaign, hopefully plan B is in the drawer – because if it isn’t the cliff edge looms in terms of how we currently operate.
“Despite calls that we want Britain to be a major global player, our sheep industry may need to consider turning away from such big aspirations and focus far more on growing and protecting our domestic UK market.
“That’s not the current model and would require substantial restructuring of the industry at all levels, entirely changing the direction that has been invested in so heavily for a long time.”
The National Farmers Union has also voice concerns and is calling for urgent talks with the government over the way forward and the future of the farming sector.
The NFU has stressed that food and agriculture play a huge role in the UK’s national economy.
The farmers’ union said that British farming underpins the country’s biggest manufacturing sector.
“Farming is of vital strategic importance for the country both in producing food for a growing population, being a driver of the rural economy, delivering high quality standards of food production and animal welfare, but also managing Britain’s landscapes, environment and natural resources,” it said.
“It is therefore vital that a post-Brexit Britain works for everyone – which must include our farming sector.”
NFU Council re-iterated four principles, which British food production needs in a post-Brexit Britain:
“We firstly welcome the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that access to a reliable workforce from overseas is vital for many British industries,” the NFU said.
“This is especially important to many farming businesses and we look forward to that acknowledgement being turned into a commitment which is then acted on.
The NFU has long called for clarity from government as to what the intended trading environment will be for Britain post-Brexit.
“Some 72 per cent of agricultural exports go to the EU with some sectors being heavily dependent on trade with the rest of Europe. For example, of £300 million UK lamb exports, £290 million came from sales to Europe, and 78 per cent of wheat and barley exports went to the EU.
“Therefore, whilst clarity from the Prime Minister has been needed, NFU Council still has legitimate and important concerns.
“The Prime Minister has ruled out the UK’s continuing participation in the European Single Market or the EU Customs Union and instead has stated her intention to pursue a free trade agreement with the EU.
“We hope the Prime Minister’s ambition can be achieved, but as we know these kind of deals normally take years to conclude and do not cover all products.
“If a quick and comprehensive deal cannot be achieved it would be absolutely vital that there are appropriate phased arrangements to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge to allow Britain’s farmers to adapt – especially given that farming is a long term industry where farmers are making decisions now without knowing what a future trading environment will look like.
“The British farming sector – along with many other industries – has consistently warned of the dangers of putting up barriers to accessing the European Market whether financial or logistical.”