Ian McConnell: Joint Scottish and Northern Irish effort flags scale of worry

IT says much about the degree of concern over the impact of the Conservative Government’s much-vaunted trade deal with Australia on farmers and food producers in Scotland and Northern Ireland that rural affairs ministers from the two nations have joined forces to sound an 11th-hour warning.

Not only that, but the ministers have declared they have little faith that their concerns are being taken seriously by the Boris Johnson administration.

It is easy to understand how they might have arrived at this impression. The Johnson Government has seemed consistently, when the huge (ongoing) trade problems arising from Brexit have been flagged and when sensible worries about new agreements have been voiced, to have had its hands clamped tightly over its ears. Its behaviour has conjured up an image not only of ear-covering but also of someone singing loudly so what is being said cannot be heard. Rather than singing, of course, UK Government ministers have been making a massive din about big, brave new trade deals, which offer relatively tiny benefits and, as can be seen with the one with Australia and the agreement being sought with the US, have rightly raised major worries (which the Johnson administration does not want to hear).

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Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon and Northern Ireland’s Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, have now sent a joint letter to UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss hammering home fears over the effects of the free trade deal agreed with Australia. The text of this letter was published on Sunday.

The points they make are straightforward, perfectly sensible, and constructive, and should be addressed.

The UK Government should be well aware of the problems outlined, given clearly annunciated warnings from the farming sector in Scotland and throughout the UK, as well as from senior politicians.

Fears of a huge hit to the UK farming and food production sector, arising from the potential for an enormous ramping up of imports of Australian beef and lamb, seem well-founded.

The UK Government has looked somewhat desperate as it has scrambled around for the big new trade deals promised by the Brexiters, as opposed to the raft of rollover agreements largely replicating what the country had as part of the European Union.

It has appeared to be in an unseemly rush. And the Australia deal it has agreed looks likely to have a major detrimental impact in key areas, for a tiny overall gain.

The gain is incredibly small, relative to the amount of noise that has been made about it by the Prime Minister and Ms Truss.

However, that has been entirely in keeping with the style of this Government. Bang the drum loudly, and never mind the cold numbers or realities.

The Johnson Government has already published an in-depth assessment showing that a free trade deal with Australia would at most, over the “long run” (a timescale of about 15 years), provide a 0.02 per cent boost to the UK’s annual gross domestic product.

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It has refused to provide an assessment of the impact of its narrow free trade deal with the EU – its hard Brexit – relative to the situation if the country had remained a member of the world’s largest free trade bloc with all the benefits of frictionless trade and free movement of people.

However, forecasts from the Theresa May government published in November 2018 showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK GDP in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries. There has of course, sadly from an economic and societal viewpoint, already been a huge Tory clampdown on immigration.

The UK Government statement on the Australia agreement last month declared that “British farmers will be protected by a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years, using tariff rate quotas and other safeguards”.

The UK farming industry had anticipated that there might be a phasing of the move towards tariff-free and quota-free access for Australian meat producers – which is the case – but it has understandably pointed out that this does not make the problem go away.

Obviously, it is the short, medium and long-term situation arising from the trade deal with Australia that matters. If this is negative, why on earth would you take this path? The phasing in of potentially major problems from the deal agreed in principle between the UK and Australia will understandably be cold comfort to farmers and food producers.

However, these realities did not seem to be weighing on Mr Johnson as he, in his usual rambunctious and broad-brush style, celebrated the trade agreement with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month.

The letter from Ms Gougeon and Mr Poots makes some very good points. Some of these are obvious, or common sense, but they must be reinforced because they do not seem to have dawned on or been heard by a Brexit-loving Government seemingly keen to thumb its nose at the EU by trumpeting other trade deals. All the while not bothering that these trade deals offer tiny potential overall benefits relative to what has been lost by discarding membership of the EU and the European single market.

The rural affairs ministers tell Ms Truss: “We have previously stressed to you, and remain extremely concerned following the recent announcement, that the UK Government is signing up to a deal that would lead to a sustained increase in imports of Australian agri-food and produced to lesser standards in relation to animal welfare and future environmental commitments. As you know, agriculture and food standards are devolved responsibilities.

“We have been clear that where there is an increase in imports of Australian agri-food, this must be managed by tariff rate quotas that are not eroded over time. This is to ensure that domestic producers are protected and not disproportionally impacted. A proposed fifteen-year cap on imports will provide no comfort for our farming communities and would set a very damaging precedent for future FTAs (free trade agreements) yet to be agreed.”

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Ms Gougeon and Mr Poots express concern over the size of quotas “which after 15 years equate to 16% of UK beef consumption and 49% of UK sheepmeat consumption”.

The ministers declare: “Clearly if Australian exports reach anything close to these levels, we can expect a very significant negative impact on our agri-food sector.”

They add: “We are not reassured about claims that Australia will not be exporting significant amounts of beef to the UK or is seeking to replace imports from other countries. Australia is a very significant beef exporter and has the potential to increase exports further with a view to targeting the UK market. It would be very surprising that Australia would have been so insistent on achieving a rapid and very sizeable increase in market access with the intention of making little use of it.”

It is indeed difficult to see why the Australian Government would insist on a dramatic increase in market access just for the sake of it.

However, at times the response of the UK Government when concerns over a surge in Australian meat imports are raised seems to signal a view that there will be no great change. Such a response remains highly unconvincing.

Ms Gougeon and Mr Poots also understandably express concerns over a lack of sharing of the details of the Australian deal with devolved administrations. As we have seen with the Brexit shambles, details matter.

They say: “It is now vital that further detail on what has been agreed is shared with the devolved administrations and that we have early sight of the legal text. We also need to be consulted around remaining issues that have not been agreed yet.”

These seem like entirely reasonable requests.

The rural affairs ministers add: “The UK Government has indicated that the deal includes a non-regression clause on animal welfare standards, albeit Australian standards are already different and so from a standing start, domestic producers would likely still be at a disadvantage.

“We will be looking at this clause very closely while also considering the detail of any other safeguards. In the meantime, based on what we do know and pending that further due process, we are taking this opportunity to stress again the concerns that we have as we have little faith that these concerns are currently being taken seriously.”

Major concerns were raised about the Australia trade deal well ahead of it being agreed. Ms Gougeon has written two previous letters to Ms Truss, in May and June.

Sadly, it always seemed unlikely these major concerns would be listened to, given the extent of the desire by the UK Government to do a trade deal with Australia. And so it has proved thus far.

Lamentably, it looks unlikely that the entirely justified fears are going to be addressed at this late stage, given the UK Government’s longstanding attitude and how far advanced the deal with Australia is now.

However, it is good to see devolved administrations join forces in an attempt to do whatever they can to mitigate the damage from the actions of UK Government ministers with their heads in the sand.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992