The Whitehouse Consultancy

Free trade and food

By Sam Blainey, Senior Political Consultant

There is not the space in this short article to go over all the different reasons why people in the UK voted to leave the EU (nor, I suspect, do many of us have the inclination to remember that referendum campaign).

But one of the reasons, especially amongst so-called ‘liberal Leavers’, was to throw off the shackles of the EU and turn Britain into a buccaneering free-trade nation; a vision exemplified by the pre-referendum front cover of right-wing magazine The Spectator of a red white and blue butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Since the EU negotiates external trading relationships on behalf of its members, the UK would have to leave Europe behind to secure these free-trade deals with countries such as the US, China and anybody else who was interested.

So far so good for the liberal Leavers. Britain is out, Article 50 will be triggered imminently, and if we can’t legally start negotiating trade deals now we can at least start talking about talking. But talk about what?

Trade deals always require compromises. Fine, everyone knows that, and the UK Government, even if it doesn’t say it right now, is prepared to make concessions to win a deal. But concessions have practical consequences; they mean changes to regulatory regimes, how products are produced, what standards are in place. Are UK consumers prepared to live with these concessions?

It is here that the food sector becomes so important – a decisive test almost of whether British shoppers will accept compromises made as part of a free trade deal with, say, the US, and whether a future British Government is prepared to pay a political price to win this deal.

Ask yourself a practical question (that is, incidentally, already being asked); will British consumers happily accept genetically modified beef? Chlorinated chicken? I think it unlikely. Even though all this US-farmed food may be perfectly safe, history shows that intelligent people can come to firm opinions on what they’re going to eat and drink based on no scientific evidence whatsoever.

The queasiness of the British shopper at being faced with products they deem as suspect at best will run up against political reality. Even if the protectionist, free trade hating Donald Trump wasn’t President, the US would still expect to negotiate a free trade deal on their terms; it is the much bigger economy after all. And on their terms means that by their food safety standards. Take it or leave it.

If they leave it then the British Government would have overseen the UK’s exit from the largest free-trading bloc in the world for… what exactly? And if they take it, the Government could walk into a political storm propelled by food safety concerns. One of the many hard choices that Theresa May’s Government continues to studiously ignore.

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