No-deal Brexit threat: Gove admits ‘no absolute guarantee’ food trade with EU will continue

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

The UK has said it will extend the deadline on some food policy consultations as Environment Secretary Michael Gove admits a no-deal exit from the EU could see an immediate halt to food trade with the bloc.

Speaking at the National Farmers Union conference this week, Gove – who heads the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) – conceded that a no-deal Brexit represents a “severe risk”​ for the UK food and drink sector.

With just six weeks remaining until the UK is set to leave the European Union, the Government has, to date, failed to deliver a Withdrawal Agreement that is able to secure the backing of a majority in the House of Commons. The UK Parliament must ratify the ‘divorce settlement’ before it comes into force and – if it does not do so – the default legal position is a no-deal departure on 29 March.

No-deal would mean ‘significant costs’

Throwing his weight behind the current deal on the table, Gove stressed that a no-deal Brexit would involve “significant costs to our economy”​ and “in particular”​ to farming and food production.

“As things stand, just six weeks before we are due to leave, the EU still have not listed the UK as a full third country in the event of no deal being concluded. That means as I speak that there is no absolute guarantee that we would be able to continue to export food to the EU,”​ Gove said.

“In the event of no deal the EU have said they will impose strict conditions on our export trade. If we leave without a deal the EU has been clear that they will levy the full external tariff on all food. That means an increase of at least 40% on sheep meat and beef, rising to well above 100% for some cuts. The impact on upland farmers and the carousel trade in beef would be significant and damaging.”

Illustrating the impact this would have on the sector, Gove noted that currently 90% of sheep meat exports go to the EU. “If European buyers do switch contracts because tariffs make our exports significantly more expensive it will be difficult to re-establish our market access even if those tariffs come down in the future,”​ he warned.

Additional challenges can be expected in the form of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks, customs delays at the border and additional paperwork and labelling requirements.

Consultation deadlines extended

The UK food sector is all too aware of these challenges. It has collectively called on Defra to ‘pause’ policy consultations on issues ranging from labelling to reformulation.

Thirty organisations representing UK food and beverage producers, including the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and NFU, sent a letter to Gove insisting that they do not have the resources to respond to these planned consultations while also preparing for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

Responding to this, Gove has indicated a willingness to pause the consultation on chemicals and pesticides strategies and has indicated Defra will not launch a consultation on environmental targets before Parliament’s summer recess.

The closing date of three consultations on the Resources and Waste Strategy have been shifted from April to May. It is understood that Gove has also approached other departments to explore extending deadlines for consultations involving areas like health. The Department of Health is currently reviewing retail promotions of ‘unhealthy’ foods, especially those targeting children.

“We will continue to review ongoing consultations, including those where deadlines can be extended, in light of developments as the UK leaves the EU.

“We have already taken some steps to allow businesses to focus on preparations for EU exit. We have ensured our consultations related to the Resources and Waste Strategy end in May rather than April – giving businesses longer to respond – and we are committed to a more flexible consultation process where stakeholders can give their views verbally,”​ a spokesperson for Defra told FoodNavigator.

Difficulties remain 'excessive'

The move to slow some policy decisions in order to give the industry adequate time to respond recognises the contribution of the sector to the policy making process, the spokesperson continued.

“We will continue to review ongoing consultations, including those where deadlines can be extended, in light of developments as the UK leaves the EU,”​ the spokesperson added.

However, a spokesperson for the FDF insisted that the pressure placed on organisations in light of the difficulties surrounding Brexit remains “excessive”.

We appreciate the Secretary of State’s commitment to undertaking only high priority consultations with much longer timescales, but we still think the pressure on organisations is excessive. We note that Brexit uncertainty means that it is impossible to predict in what economic conditions any new policy will be enacted and the viability of the businesses these policies impact,”​ the spokesperson stressed.

“Given the unprecedented challenges posed by the need for business and government to be ready for a no-deal Brexit, we believe all consultations should be paused.”

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