Chris Haskins: The bitter harvest of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and what it will mean for food supplies

Will Brexit lead to food shortages?
Will Brexit lead to food shortages?
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GOVERNMENTS have to make sure that their countries do not run out of essential commodities in life – energy and food. If the lights go out and people are hungry, they tend to take revenge on the people who rule them. As a result, massive subsidies are provided for these two sectors in order to secure continuity of supply.

But there is an additional element to food supplies in Britain. Nearly 40 per cent has to be sourced from elsewhere. In two world wars, Germany tried to cut off these supplies in order to starve Britain into surrender – but failed.

There's a debate about whether the food industry should stockpile supplies ahead of Brexit.

There's a debate about whether the food industry should stockpile supplies ahead of Brexit.

Now the Government is suggesting that a “no Brexit” deal might, in the short term, create food shortages and are pressing retailers to build stocks in case such a situation does arise.

Is the Government scaremongering or is it taking sensible precautions? Brexiteers say that the purpose is to prepare the public for a much softer deal than the sceptics would like.

But governments in the past have always been prepared to stockpile food if there is a risk to supplies from abroad. In the Cold War, my company, Northern Foods, produced large quantities of biscuits which were stored away in case such a situation arose – it never did!

A breakdown in talks between the UK and the EU resulting in no deal would have the following consequences:

All existing trading arrangements with the EU would no longer have a legal basis.

The UK Government would be obliged, as a member of the World Trade Organisation, to introduce tariffs on all external trade activities, including food and drink, and the rates could be quite severe – from five per cent to as much as 20 per cent.

The Government would have to introduce extensive border controls on all trade. This would be complicated, expensive and take time to introduce. At present, because Ireland and the UK are members of the EU, there are no border controls on the Irish border. These would have to be introduced.

So the Government is suggesting that retailers should stockpile food to give them time to avoid chaos and sort out the mess.

But a large proportion of the food we import is fresh, which will only keep for a matter of days. Even if supplies continue to come through the ports, border controls would inevitably slow up the movement, with consequential deterioration and dumping of large quantities of perishable food.

There would obviously be a huge increase in demand for home-produced food, but there are severe limitations to this option as much of the food we import – fresh fruit from the Mediterranean and elsewhere – cannot be grown here.

It would take time, perhaps years, to convert land into more fruit and vegetable production. And, as most of the harvesting is carried out by Eastern European workers, who would probably be inclined to go home, there would be no labour to pick the extra crops.

A “no deal” would reduce trade between the UK and the EU, because of the introduction of tariffs. The impact on Welsh lamb, which is highly dependent on continental markets, would be severe. Furthermore, any compromise on food regulatory standards, in order to placate the Americans, could effectively close many EU markets to UK food exporters.

The introduction of border controls in Ireland, where a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, has serious political ramifications in that a minority, led by Unionist politicians, seem intent on forcing their will on the majority. This could jeopardise the whole peace process initiated in the Good Friday Agreement and raise again the contentious question of Irish unification.

Scotland also voted to remain in the EU and any damage done, especially to its thriving agriculture, food and drink industry, could well revive the demand for devolution and separation from the rest of the UK. Indeed the long term future of the Union must be in question if the Welsh, who narrowly voted in favour of Brexit, change their mind when the realities of withdrawal begin to sink in.

My conclusion, therefore, is that despite pressure from the evangelical Brexiteers, the consequences of a “no deal” outcome to the negotiations are too awful to contemplate – and for what purpose?

However there is a slim chance that common sense will prevail before disaster strikes. The European Council of Justice is critical in making the EU Single Market effective, because it is the ultimate arbiter when disputes arise. Theresa May has, to date, ruled out any role for the ECJ in future arrangements with the EU.

Reports suggest that the Government is beginning to take a more flexible stance on the ECJ’s future role in maintaining an effective trading relationship between the UK and the EU.

If so, a deal can be negotiated which would enable the UK to continue to participate in the EU’s 65 external trading agreements. There would be no need to introduce WTO tariffs and controls on the Irish border might not be necessary. A major obstacle to continued membership of the EU Customs Union woud be removed.

Such a deal might be too much for Jacob Rees-Mogg and the extreme Brexiteers, but the other MPs, who mostly voted to remain, might well conclude that a pragmatic withdrawal from the EU, and which does minimal damage to the economy, is the best option available to them.

If such a compromise is not achievable, it is unlikely that any other proposal would attract a majority in the Commons because both leading parties are hopelessly divided on this issue.

In these circumstances the Government would have to ask for a delay on the exit of March 29, 2019, and call a general election. This, in turn, might lead to another referendum, asking the voters to think again, with a much greater understanding of the consequences of Brexit than was the case in 2016.

Chis Haskins is a life peer, food entrepreneur and East Yorkshire farmer. He was also Tony Blair’s rural tsar.