By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council (BEIC)
Over three years since the EU referendum, two General Elections have taken place, and the UK finally has a withdrawal agreement in place. The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20 completed its legislative journey, and the UK left the EU on 31 January. Despite peers passing five amendments in the House of Lords, MPs returned the Bill in its original wording back to the upper chamber, where they relented, and the Bill received Royal Assent and became law a matter of hours later. What a difference a parliamentary majority makes.
The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, as it now formally known, was later signed by the Chief of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and President of the European Council, Charles Michel. This was shortly followed by a confirmatory vote in the European Parliament.
The Prime Minister has said the UK can now move forward after years of wrangling over Brexit, which may very well be true – but the hard work, tough negotiations and political brinkmanship may be far from over. The 31 January 2020 being referred to as ‘Brexit Day’, by many, is arguably a misnomer. After this date the UK will cease to have any political representation in the EU, but will have to abide by rules made in Brussels during the transition period until the end of the year – which means that by 31 December it is for both sides to reach a free trade agreement governing our future economic relationship with the bloc.
On average trade agreements take around 28 months to complete, but there is a large variation in the length of negotiations. It took Canada seven years to reach its agreement with the EU, elements of which are still being finessed. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU is not the best example of how long negotiations between the UK and the EU might take, however. Since the UK has been in the EU club for 46 years, the sort of regulatory obstacles that exist or existed between the EU and third countries are not an issue. How far the UK wishes to deviate from these regulations to strike trade agreements with other countries in the future will be the issue.
Only a few weeks ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid said that the UK would not seek alignment with the EU on regulation and warned that not all businesses would benefit from Brexit. Unless the Government changes its direction of travel on tariff-free access to non-EU countries for egg and egg products, the UK egg industry will be among the losers. The Government has also said it wants an economic partnership with the EU in which there are no quotas, tariffs or dumping on either side. However, Brussels has made it clear on several occasions that this is practically impossible without alignment on regulations and standards. Both sides have less than a year to square this circle and reach an agreement. To say this will be ‘challenging’ would be an understatement.
The Government has re-introduced the Agriculture Bill from the last parliament, the most significant piece of legislation in British farming for over 70 years. The BEIC along with other representative bodies are supporting calls for the creation of a food standards commission, to ensure that reciprocal standards in food production are an integral component of post-Brexit trade agreements. Until trade agreements that guarantee animal welfare standards are reached, import tariffs are the only way to support British egg producers and protect consumers from eggs and egg products produced by hens where there are no (or few) welfare standards, which we maintain would be a national disgrace.