Environment Secretary Michael Gove has urged farmers to collectively plead with MPs to do everything in their power to avoid Britain leaving the European Union without a deal.
Mr Gove, speaking at the annual National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Conference, told farmers there was currently no absolute guarantee Britain could continue exporting food to the EU after March 29.
He said potential gains for farms post-Brexit would be “put at severe risk” in the event of a no-deal, a scenario described as “the stuff of nightmares” by NFU president Minette Batters.
The union leader issued a stark warning to as the organisation’s annual conference got underway, saying a no-deal would “decimate” the sheep sector.
Deriding the political turmoil over Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to strike a deal with the EU that is palatable with MPs in the Commons, Ms Batters said it was “absolutely shocking” that businesses were still unclear about the trade rules they will be operating in with just over five weeks to go before Britain formally leaves the EU.
“I make no apologies for saying leaving the EU without a deal would be catastrophic for British farming,” Ms Batters said.
“In a few weeks’ time, if there isn’t a deal with the EU, high export tariffs could effectively mean we have no market for 4.5 million lambs, a no deal Brexit could decimate those farms up and down Britain.”
The deadline for farmers to make decisions was imminent, she said, adding: “Next week, ships will set sail from Britain with cargo on board, including British food exports which will arrive in their destinations after the 29th March. Farmers and food producers need to make decisions now whether to load British produce onto (those) ships.”
Mr Gove warned of “significant” costs to the economy, particularly to farming and food production in the event of a no-deal.
Leaving the EU without a deal will mean the bloc levies tariffs on all food exported from the UK, he said.
This would mean an increase of at least 40 per cent on sheep meat and beef, rising well above 100 per cent for some cuts, and this would cause prices to rise dramatically.
“The impact on upland farmers and the carousel trade in beef would be significant and damaging,” the Minister said.
Some 90 per cent of British sheepmeat goes to France and Mr Gove said other EU nations are hungry to supply French markets. If European buyers switch contracts, it will be tough to re-establish those markets in the future even if tariffs later fall, he said.
“I emphatically do not want to run the risks that leaving without a deal would involve,” Mr Gove said.
“It is critically important that every decision-maker in London, every parliamentarian who will vote in coming weeks, understands what no deal would involve for British farmers and food producers. No one can be blithe or blasé about the consequences.
“Which is why I hope you will make your voices heard... in asking our MPs not to undermine or put at risk the potential gains of Brexit by voting for us to leave without a deal.”