The UK has bowed to calls for an independent commission to advise on post-Brexit agriculture trade policy in a move that has cast doubt on the government’s ability to secure a quick deal with the US.
Washington has called for much greater access to the British food market as a price for any agreement, prompting a backlash from farmers and MPs who have warned of the potential threat to food welfare standards if chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef is allowed to enter the UK market.
Following sustained lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union for an independent body to scrutinise the impact of any such deal, Liz Truss, international trade secretary, said a new trade and agriculture commission would consider policies the government “should adopt in free trade agreements to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.
Ms Truss, who is overseeing the UK-US negotiations, has been drawing up plans to cut tariffs on US agricultural imports to help reach a trade deal. But she has faced opposition from George Eustice, secretary of state at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because of concerns about the effect on UK farmers if tariff cuts lead to further UK concessions on animal welfare.
“There has been trench warfare between Defra and the department for international trade”, one senior Tory MP said. “It does feel as though Number 10 have come down very firmly on the side of Defra.
“I think they’ve realised they don’t want to be seen as cheerleaders for Trump. There are some indications that he may be on his way out and they would rather do a trade deal with the next administration.”
Although the commission will only be advisory, Ms Truss said it would be established “under department for international trade auspices” and produce a report that will be presented to parliament.
Sam Lowe, trade expert at the Center for European Reform, a think-tank, said Ms Truss’s decision to set up the commission recognised the awkward political realities of doing a US-UK trade deal as objections from farmers and backbenchers had become increasingly stark in recent months.
“It was always going to be difficult for the UK open up its agriculture sector to increased competition from American producers and others,” he said. “The fact that English farms tend to be located in Conservative-held constituencies means that the party ostensibly most in favour of free trade and liberalisation, also has the most to lose.”
David Henig, director of the UK Trade Forum — a non-partisan group of experts — and a former trade negotiator, added that while the commission would buy Ms Truss some time, it did not answer the binary question of how to do a US-UK trade deal without making deep concessions to Washington over animal welfare and production standards.
“Establishing the commission is a welcome sign from government that they are starting to appreciate the complexities of the subject, though this has taken time and a strong campaign by farming, environment, animal welfare and consumer lobbies”, he said. “It is still unclear how the government can balance these lobbies and still deliver a deep US trade deal.”
Minette Batters, NFU President, described the commitment to the commission as a “hugely important development”.
In a letter to Ms Batters on Monday, Ms Truss said: “I wholeheartedly agree that any trade deal the UK strikes must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers, and must not compromise on our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.
“As you know this is the first time in over 40 years that the UK has pursued its own trade policy and I do recognise the importance of close engagement with the industry and a clear ‘road map’, as you put it, to help inform agricultural trade policy and apply appropriate safeguards in UK free trade deals.”
However, government officials said it was “total rubbish” to suggest the move signalled that a swift trade deal with the US was increasingly unlikely.