Tomorrow is the big day when UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggers the much-awaited Article 50 signalling Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The document will be delivered by Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels, to President of the European Council Donald Tusk – marking the beginning of the two years it could take to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal and exactly what that means.
The fresh produce industry in the UK and all over the world continue to watch events unfold, eager to learn more about potential negotiations following months of speculation and uncertainty which started following the referendum result last June.
Frictionless trade in goods between the UK and the EU
Just yesterday (Mar 27) a coalition of food supply chain bodies – The British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation and the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales – issued a joint statement about the strategic importance for the UK in the food supply chain, which generates more than £100 billion of value for the economy every year and employs around four million people.
“Much of the food supply chain is domestically based, and our organisations are committed to domestic production that is competitive and profitable and fully meets the demands of British consumers. Nevertheless, we cannot operate in isolation,” it says.
“Our farmers need imported feed and inputs and they need access to other markets for their products, especially where demand for these in the UK is insufficient. Our food and drink manufacturers rely on exports to grow their businesses and imports to complement their use of domestically produced ingredients and raw materials. Our retailers need access to a full range of goods all year round to balance seasonality and meet consumer demand.
“The regulatory framework that governs this international trade therefore matters to all of us, both in strengthening and supporting UK producers in domestic and foreign markets, and in affording UK consumers and the agri-food and drink industry the benefits of free trade with overseas partners.”
Of course, once the UK leaves the EU it also leaves the Single Market and so the consortium is calling on the government to ensure stability for agri-food and drink businesses when handling negotiations.
Among key points, the consortium is calling for frictionless trade for goods in between the UK and EU, an avoidance of customs duties on trade by securing an ambitious bilateral free trade agreement with the EU that delivers two-way tariff-free trade and secures EU preferential trade arrangements, including the UK’s fair share of tariff rate quotas for agricultural imports.
It also wants to see preferential access for UK food and drink exports “at least until government can replace them with acceptable alternative arrangements” and an engagement with third countries when the terms of the UK’s future trading relations with the EU and other existing preferential trading partners are clear.
In addition, the consortium is also urging that the UK is established as an independent member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and adoption of the EU’s current schedule of Most Favoured Nation bound tariff rates.
Fresh Produce Consortium
Trading association for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC), has been working hard over the last nine months trying to secure the best future for the UK.
Although to date the government has provided few details about vital regulation issues like import inspections, customs border controls and trading relationships, FPC forecasts the framework will be “crystallised” in the months ahead.
“Since June 2016 FPC has been busy on behalf of its members raising awareness of the key challenges which the UK fresh produce faces to ensure we can continue to trade effectively,” CEO, Nigel Jenney tells PBUK.
“Key issues include securing our future workforce, new customs arrangements, inspections and regulation, as well as securing beneficial trading agreements with the European Union and also with third countries.
“It’s vitally important that we maintain our work with Government departments as they start to make key decisions over the coming year. We will continue to lobby, and we are engaged in various UK industry stakeholder groups on areas of mutual concern. We look forward to getting into more detailed discussions in due course and will keep members informed.”
Seasonal workers on UK fruit farms
Another major issue the industry is facing is how new trade talks will impact on the seasonal workforce, many of whom are from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, and historically plug labour shortages on Britain’s farms.
Although there is still no real clarity on what Brexit means in real terms for EU nationals living and working in the UK or Britons living in member states, earlier this month immigration minister Robert Goodwill MP rejected any type of seasonal workers’ scheme.
The NFU, backed up by many other industry professionals, called for visa-controlled permits for agricultural workers in order to fill the gaps at busy harvesting periods.
But much to the dismay of NFU deputy president Minette Batters, who has been lobbying government over the issue for some time, Goodwill said there was “no need for a scheme.”
Tomorrow Tusk is to make a statement formally acknowledging receipt of the document and will distribute a draft of the EU’s negotiating guidelines among the 27 other member states.
The European Commission is also expected to issue more details on its stance in the coming days and weeks.