Growing post-Brexit food and farming trade friction will be a long-term problem
Although we have left the EU, there are still many issues to be resolved. One of the biggest dangers is that if the NI Protocol breaks so will the UK-EU trade deal.
The House of Lords EU Environment sub-committee that I have had the privilege to chair is about to launch its final report, after which it will quietly exit five years after the referendum when the UK decided to pack its bags and leave the EU.
That swan song report takes a forensic look not so much at what has been agreed by the UK and EU in their Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but what is still to be resolved. It is a long and daunting checklist – fisheries, chemical regulation, border checks, energy trading, carbon markets, phyto-sanitary controls, and more.
Let me share a spoiler. My conclusion is that, whatever those issues, whatever the angst from its imperfections, the reality is that both negotiating teams achieved their goals. From Michael Gove and David Frost’s point of view we have, in their terms, achieved sovereignty. Northern Ireland of course will disagree, with that border down the Irish Sea. But for better or worse Britain is free of the European Court of Justice, freedom of movement, EU regulation, and the veto on making our own trade deals.
Bans on products such as seed potatoes, and big friction with time delays at ports for perishable products makes earning a living a challenge
From the EU’s point of view, they have protected their single market and customs union. Politically, despite our efforts to divide, they kept a total unity among the 27 throughout the negotiations. So whatever there is that’s not to like, it is the result of those fundamental objectives - sealed and delivered by both sides an instant before the clock stopped ticking at the end of December.
It is perhaps an irony that as an EU committee we have had our most busy period following the vote to leave. There is a proud library of our reports, all the titles starting with the bold word Brexit followed by the subject – agriculture, fisheries, climate change, bio-security, food security, energy, the chemicals sector and the REACH regime – all vital areas of the subsequent negotiations. A consistent theme from our witnesses was despite the government’s negotiating message - real or poker-faced - that no deal was better than a bad deal. The witnesses were clear that a no-deal would have been the very worst of outcomes.
So this, our final report, looks at all of those areas still to be resolved.
Farmers especially welcomed the zero tariffs and quotas deal. WTO terms would have laid waste many of their livestock enterprises. But bans on certain products such as seed potatoes, and big friction with its time delays at ports for perishable products still makes earning a living a challenge.
The fishing sector received little that it expected, and together with energy, has to be negotiated all over again in 2026. The chemical sector with its supply chains crossing the Channel has to cope with two regulatory regimes with a price ticket of £1 billion of extra costs. Keeping Northern Ireland’s food retailers’ shelves filled is already a political as well as an economic pressure point.
The bigger question is how many of these frictions on trade are temporary and what is permanent? I suspect that despite the government’s optimism, much is for the long term. But the agreement is littered with specialist joint committees designed to find ways forward.
In the wider environmental area they cover sanitary and phytosanitary measures, fisheries, and energy. Just the ticket you might think. Yet strangely we have refused to initiate them until the agreement is ratified by the European Parliament, which in turn is refusing to move ahead until the UK’s unilateral moves on the Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol are resolved. So we’re stuck in a stalemate.
Brexit is not so much ‘done’, as being slowly resolved. My committee has met twice with our equivalent in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and this is where the biggest dangers lie. I suspect that the Protocol cannot survive politically – and if that breaks so will the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Lord Teverson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and chair of the Lords EU Environment sub-committee.