Comment: We will continue pressing government through the tough times ahead

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

The BEIC in collaboration with animal welfare group allies was successful in its sustained lobbying campaign on retaining import tariffs for eggs and egg products once the Brexit transition period ends after 31 December 2020.

Despite a marginal reduction of 1%, the UK Government agreed with our economic argument that it is pointless to have high standards for animal welfare required for our own producers if we allow imports from other countries to undermine those very same standards that both our industry and consumers expect. The Covid-19 crisis will lead to a reassessment of how people live their lives and what they value, for food production this is likely to be a greater appreciation of our farmers and the importance of food security and traceability.

There has been some worrying comments and developments for UK farming around the potential trade deal with the US, however. Government officials have already put forward plans for a ‘dual-tariff’ regime between the UK and US for agri-food products, which may also include eggs and egg products. In this proposal, products that meet our standards would be given a preferential tariff over those that do not. This will do very little to provide consumers with the confidence that the products they are consuming have been produced to the highest animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards in the world. In fact, it would create a race to the bottom, where consumers’ constrained budgets would be lured into consuming products that undermine British farmers, and most likely unknowingly as they would not necessarily know the origin of egg products that are being used. In such a scenario, it is impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice.

Only recently, America’s top trade negotiator, Ambassador Robert Lightizer has said that a trade deal is unlikely to be reached before the US presidential election takes place in November. The President will be preoccupied with ensuring he wins a second term, as well as other pressing domestic matters. Apart from this, the mechanism that authorises the President to conduct trade negotiations will soon be renewed by the US Congress, potentially making more difficult to conclude trade deals without the approval of the US legislature. A trade deal offered by a potential Biden-led administration is unlikely to be any different in substance, however. The Ambassador also said that one of issues complicating the talks are that of US agricultural exports. The BEIC is concerned that this could mean that the Government will be increasingly prepared to sacrifice our standards to grease the wheels, or more optimistically it could mean that the UK negotiating team is sticking to its guns on standards – we will not relent in our pressure to ensure it’s the latter.

On top of this, the Department for International Trade has recently opened trade negotiations with the Japanese Government in the hope of achieving a deal by the end of 2020 and using this agreement as a steppingstone to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as beginning trade negotiations with Australia. The UK has not negotiated its own free trade deals in generations, and I fear it lacks the experience and expertise to conduct so many simultaneous negotiations of such complex deals – the Government could be advised to take a slower and more considered approach as quality and substance of the deals are arguably more beneficial than sheer quantity.

The BEIC is also lobbying policymakers and Government on the importance of supply of labour. While the Immigration Bill is making its way through Parliament, it does not provide our industry with the satisfactory answers or solutions when it comes to staffing our industry. We have made representations to Defra to inform their response to the Migration Advisory Committee – who have called for evidence and a review of the shortage occupation list. We will of course be submitting our own evidence in due course, and we encourage individual producers to do the same, and to argue that the food supply chain and agricultural workers are included in this list. This can be done by visiting the Migration Advisory Committee website and submitting written evidence in the form of a questionnaire.

While all this is developing, most importantly the UK needs to reach an agreement with the EU. The Government reiterated their position that they will not seek an extension to the transition phase for the UK to leave the EU on the 1st January 2021. Many have expressed concern that the economic shock as well as focus on Covid-19 has meant the UK is not prepared for formally leaving the EU by this time. The EU also has the right to request an extension, to which the Prime Minister has said the UK would refuse any such request.

The European Commission Vice President Marcos Sefcovic said after a meeting with Michael Gove in June that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, “couldn’t be clearer” in his formal notice to the Commission, which confirms the real possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. He also said however that “with some six months to go before the end of the transition period we still have lots of work to do.” There may some very difficult times ahead.

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