Brexit solution does not lie in Brussels

Over the years I have covered many events in Brussels. Milk quotas coming and going; four or five big CAP reforms; the start and end of BSE – the list is endless. I was even there when prime ministerial hopeful – or should that be wishful – Boris Johnson was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Brussels.

Saturday, 23rd March 2019, 8:47 am
Updated Saturday, 23rd March 2019, 8:51 am
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In all that time what I never saw was the situation now, where the UK is making the European Union, Commission and even parliament look statesmanlike and professional. Never in all that time did anyone from the UK Government, let alone a Prime Minister, go to Brussels without a strategy for what they were trying to achieve or how they would do it.

Watching events this week there is a real sense that the UK has gone from being one of the movers and shakers to being a member state others look at with pity. They do not want to see a no deal Brexit any more than the prime minister, but they are powerless to prevent what they see as self-destruction at Westminster.

The other member states are playing to specific galleries back home, but all seem to view the UK with sorrow rather than anger about the position it finds itself in. However it is important people accept the solution does not lie in Brussels, but at Westminster. There will be no further concessions on the withdrawal deal or the backstop. The other member states, including those that trade most with the UK, have already factored a no deal exit and World Trade Organisation tariffs into their economic calculations. Irish farmers have been reassured that they would be compensated by the EU for any economic fallout from a no deal outcome.

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Historians will ponder how this was handled for decades to come, but what is already clear is that neither leave or remain supporters are going to get what they want.

The bigger question here however is what it all will mean for farmers. As things stand we are strapped into a roller-coaster for a bumpy ride to a still uncertain destination. The prime minister is seemingly voluntarily boxing herself into a corner that could yet trigger a constitutional crisis, in the shape of a power battle between the government and a majority of MPs.

The UK could also, by accident, end up with a no deal Brexit. What became clear this week is that the leaders of the EU-27 member states do not want that, but are not going to prevent it happening if the outcome is damaging to the EU. Hoping it will not happen is not a strategy guaranteed to deliver the outcome Theresa May says she wants.

This is far from encouraging for farmers. There are key questions that need answered about what a delayed Brexit will mean in practical terms, including support payments and markets. The political bunfight over how we will leave the EU has blocked all progress on key issues that surround agriculture’s post-Brexit situation. Over a thousand days on from the referendum vote the harsh reality is that no-one has a clue where agriculture is going. How it will be supported, and where it will sell what it produces, are issues constantly raised by the farming lobby. It is not however getting any answers. Even worse, politicians, frankly, have little interest. Their immediate focus is on Brexit, and they have a naïve belief that if this is resolved everything else will fall into place.

That may be the case if the withdrawal deal is agreed, since that would give us two years to sort out our crucial trading relationship with the EU-27. That would hopefully limit the government’s obsessions with a trade deal with the United States, which wants us to accept chlorine washed chicken, hormone treated beef and GM food. If we did so we could wave goodbye to our food export market in Europe.

What is needed now is more realism and less politics. Part of that realism is that the EU-27 has already factored in a no deal outcome; any trade deal with the US would come with huge strings attached and offers nothing for UK agriculture; and support to match CAP levels will be hard to secure if the UK economy suffers from a no deal outcome, even in the short term. The biggest reality is that there is no ideal solution – and compromise and cross party support for the government are not dirty words.