TO Mr JAMES HEAPPEY MP
Dear Mr Heappey,
Why Are We Protecting French Farming from Australian Competition ?
It is encouraging that Ministers have reached a free trade agreement with Australia, but I was shocked to realise that this agreement still leaves Australia in a less favourable position than the European Union.
It seems that while French, Irish and other European foodstuffs will enjoy tariff-free access to the British market with immediate effect, Australian foodstuffs will remain subject to severe restrictions for periods varying up to another 15 years. In other words, Britain’s consumers, after voting in 2016 to regain their access to affordable food supplies, must now wait for 20 years after their vote, before getting what they voted for.
Surely that is a grotesque outcome? British consumers will be bearing the burden of protecting French agriculture against Australian competition. That is a strange reward for Brussels’ intransigence in the Brexit struggle, and a curious recompense to the Australians for their consistent encouragement throughout it?
The wider implications are still more disturbing. If we lack the political strength to extend equal treatment to the Australians (of all people) then to whom can we extend it? Will we be locked for ever into granting Brussels a position of privileged access to send us high-priced European supplies? A position of privilege over the whole of the rest of the world? Where then is Taking Back Control? Where then is Global Britain?
Is it not time to recall Britain’s traditional interest, as defined by Winston Churchill more than 100 years ago: “The food of the people should be sold in the markets of this country as cheap as the competition of the world can make it.”
The Strategic Aspect
There is also a strategic aspect. Our dependence on European sources of food, on terms controlled by Brussels, is a continuing source of British strategic weakness. Britain’s strategic aim should surely be to reduce that dependency by widening its range of suppliers. The trade negotiation with Australia is our first and greatest opportunity for doing so.
Britain is now engaged in what looks like becoming a perpetual negotiation with Brussels over the implementation of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. Northern Ireland is the immediate battlefield, others will follow. It cannot afford to lock itself into a position of strategic weakness. It should surely be using the Australian negotiations to show Brussels it is ready to challenge and undermine the EU’s all-too-lucrative hold on its agricultural captive market here. Brussels would see that as a powerful negotiating signal, with wide implications, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
But instead, Ministers have contrived to send the opposite signal: by protecting French agriculture against Australian competition, Ministers have sent an unfortunate negotiating signal. They have conveyed the message that Brussels’ armlock on the British agricultural market is exempt from challenge. Brussels now knows it has it has nothing to fear, and therefore has no need, for example, to consider concessions, whether over N Ireland or anywhere else.
This was surely a tactical blunder, an unhappy failure of joined-up government.
Surely this unhappy failure calls for a re-think before the Australian agreement is ratified. That agreement must surely grant access to Australia at least equal to that accorded to France? It must not protect French agriculture at British consumers’ expense. If French beef is to have immediate access, then Australian beef must have the same. A wider public must be encouraged to ask why they can’t be given the freedom to choose Australian food as readily as French? And why Britain should remain dependent on EU supplies?
I hope you will forgive me for bringing my concern to your attention. Ministers need to be saved from a historic blunder.
A J Lane
A J LANE CB
Former Head of International Trade Policy, Department of Trade and Industry