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Two years is not enough for Glyn Roberts.
The sheep farmer, who lives among the lilting green hills of northern Wales, says agriculture needs at least 10 years of transition beyond the Brexit date of March 2019 — rather than the two currently proposed — or risk “calamity”.
The UK government hopes to get the green light next month for the transition talks, which farmers see as crucial.
“We’ll go out in two years but I doubt trade deals will be settled by then,” says Mr Roberts, who maintains 1,000 sheep on 450 acres of hilly land, is president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales and, unlike most of his compatriots, voted Remain in last year’s referendum.
By way of example, he points to lamb and beef sales to the US, which have yet to resume even though a formal ban on British beef exports — dating back to an outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the 1980s — was lifted nine years ago.
Although agriculture represents only 1 per cent of UK economic output, the debate over its future highlights a fundamental decision facing Brexit Britain: how much to open up to international trade when the country leaves the EU.
The farming sector, like the country as a whole, has a choice whether to concentrate on retaining ties with Europe or to focus on markets further afield, as many Brexiters urge.
As Britain deliberates on the path it will take after Brexit, many farmers are putting a priority on maintaining as much as the status quo as possible.
Farmers’ groups are alarmed about the prospect of trade deals with countries such as the US and Australia, which by opening up competition to larger scale, lower cost producers could drive down prices and profits, as well as making a big mark on standards and regulation.
Seventy per cent of last year’s £13.8bn of food exports headed to the bloc. The proportion of the UK’s £36.2bn food imports from the EU is even higher, at almost 80 per cent.
The depth of such ties is one of the reasons why many agricultural groups share Mr Roberts’ view that a transition is urgently needed, despite many farmers’ frustrations with the EU.
A dozen regional and sectoral associations — ranging from the British Poultry Council to the Ulster Farmers Union — called in the summer for a transition to allow the UK “unfettered access to European markets” for a temporary period.
In the absence of a transition, the alternative of a hard Brexit when Britain leaves the EU in March 2019 could be more dramatic for agriculture than for many other sectors of the economy.
If the UK were to rely on World Trade Organisation rules for trade with its former EU partners, beef exports would face tariffs of 87 per cent and lamb exports 51 per cent.
While the potential tariff for beef is much higher, it is sheep farmers such as Mr Roberts who are particularly exposed. Three quarters of British beef is consumed domestically. But Wales — which accounts for almost 10m of Britain’s 33m sheep — exports 40 per cent of its lamb. Some 90 per cent of these exports are headed to the EU.
“The sheep meat sector is particularly dependent at the moment on EU exports,” Michael Gove, environment secretary, acknowledged in September.
Glyn Roberts: ‘I do hope we’ll have exactly the same rules and regulations to trade with the EU’ © Jon Super/FT
But he argued that, given the EU’s agricultural and food surplus with the UK, it was in both sides’ interest to maintain free and open trade.
The problem for agriculture, as for post-Brexit commerce generally, is that trade deals are often as much to do with standards as with tariffs. Many farmers argue that if Britain is to retain access to European markets, it will require continued adherence to European standards.
That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU.
Mr Gove has insisted the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower” deal with the US.
But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.
Few farmers are keen on such an outcome. Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, says: “It would be grossly unfair to allow food to come in that’s been produced to lower standards — that would totally undermine our competitiveness and confidence of the farming community to invest in the future.”
A report by the House of Lords EU energy and environment subcommittee also expressed concern in May that the government’s “vision for the UK as a leading free-trade nation with low tariff barriers to the outside world does not sit easily with its declared commitment to high quality and welfare standards in the UK farming sector”.
The coming months will reveal whether such reservations will be outweighed as Britain seeks to pave the way for a showpiece trade deal outside the EU — and how much of a break with the status quo Brexit will ultimately represent.
For farmers like Mr Roberts, the best way to leave the EU would be to preserve the existing order.
“I do hope we’ll have exactly the same rules and regulations to trade with the EU,” he says. “We have to trade with Europe because of the potential of 500m consumers who want our food and are 50 miles across the channel. Why should we cart our food to the other side of the world?”