Can the UK's countryside and those who farm it survive the twin assaults of Brexit and a trade deal with the USA? Photo: KayYen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Brexit and Trump trade deal spell doom for our 'Green and Pleasant Land'
31st January 2017
Leaving the European Union and reaching a trade deal with President Trump's US would create a perfect storm for UK farmers, writes Liberal Democrat Environment Spokesperson Kate Parminter, with new EU tariffs, reduced subsidies and drastically lower standards. The changes would also pose a serious threat to our natural environment, food quality and public health.
We need to show how an ambitious climate change and environmental strategy is good for jobs, growth and prosperity, and call on Theresa May to insist on high environmental, animal welfare, health and safety standards in any potential trade deal.
The withdrawal from the European Union will shape this country's future for decades to come.
In the case of the UK farming industry and our rural environment, the consequences could be devastating and permanent.
Theresa May's commitment to leaving the Single Market will hit UK farmers especially hard. They will be most heavily impacted by two aspects of the Single Market: tariffs and subsidies.
First, because tariffs for agricultural products tend to be far higher than tariffs in other sectors, UK farmers will find it far harder to export their goods to the EU, by far their largest market, after leaving the Single Market.
Second, the level of farming subsidies is likely to be significantly reduced. Although Chancellor Philip Hammond has committed to continue CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) payments until 2020, it is uncertain what will happen to farming subsidies after that point.
Undoubtedly, there will be calls to divert the £3 billion a year our farmers currently receive away from agriculture, especially if the Government is feeling pressure to alleviate the costs of Brexit or to live up to promises made during the EU referendum campaign. Who can forget that infamous Brexit bus with its promise of £350 million a week for the NHS?
Trump trade deal will drive down farming and environment standards
The effects of leaving the Single Market would alone be devastating for rural communities throughout our country. The 'double whammy' of increased tariffs and reduced subsidies will likely put huge pressures on our farmers, and some will surely be forced out of business.
However, these consequences are further heightened by the election of Donald Trump as US President. A free trade deal with the US may sound good to some in theory, but in practice it could lead to a reduction in the UK's farming standards and undercut British farmers.
If we have a free trade deal with the US that allows agricultural exports into the UK under current US regulations, then the EU may not allow UK produce to be imported at all. This is because otherwise US produce could simply be re-exported as UK produce, while not meeting the higher European standards.
Then within the UK, cheap exports from the US (and elsewhere) could undercut UK farmers, making them less competitive both domestically and abroad. More widely, Brexit and Trump pose an even greater risk to farming by threatening our natural environment and our sustainability.
Withdrawing from the European Union means withdrawing from European directives on the environment as well. Some have celebrated this fact. The Farming Minister, George Eustice, has attacked "spirit-crushing" EU directives, including the Birds and Habitats Directives.
This attack has been echoed by many of his Conservative colleagues. I, however, am not celebrating.
What did the EU ever do for us?
EU directives and the associated compliance frameworks have been responsible for huge improvements in UK environmental protection. There are numerous examples in which the UK government was forced to take a stronger approach to climate change and protecting the environment because of the EU.
Recycling targets, for example, were finally adopted by the Government only because of the fines threatened by the European Commission. Similarly, as Alan Andrews of Client Earth points out, the European Commission's compliance framework was the "main driver" behind the Government's development of an air quality plan.
Ignoring the environmental impact for a moment, even on a purely economic level, a low regulation approach to the UK economy cannot work outside the EU. This is because the UK will never be able to compete with the lower levels of regulations and cheaper labour costs of developing countries.
And even these countries will find it harder to compete in the future as automation replaces more and more low-skilled jobs. Instead, all that a low-regulation UK economy will achieve is damage to Britain's and the world's natural environment.
Beyond that, it is a complete wrong to assume there is a universal cry from either industry or shoppers to cut costs by reducing environmental, animal welfare and safety standards. Many British companies recognise the benefits of high standards and a good reputation. And consumers remain deeply sceptical of US-style industrial agriculture and the quality of the food it produces.
Two governments bent on corporate deregulation
As Secretary of State for the Environment Andrea Leadsom has pointed out, the UK courts will still be able to enforce environmental legislation. However, I am still not convinced. The Conservative Government and the Trump administration have not signalled any willingness to raise the level of environmental protection.
In fact, the opposite is true. Since the Liberal Democrats left Government in 2015, the Conservatives have instituted a series of devastating steps for sustainability and the environment.
This includes cutting subsidies for solar and onshore wind, abandoning Zero Carbon Homes, announcing plans to sell off the Green Investment Bank, and crapping the Green Deal. In addition we have seen scrapping of £1 billion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects, reducing tax breaks for clean cars and allowing fracking under National Parks.
Since Brexit, the Conservative Government has avoided questions about the future of environmental protection. For example, Government ministers were asked seven times if the government would retain EU air quality limits following Brexit. They still declined to make a commitment.
Meeting the climate challenge
Trump, on the other hand, has been very explicit about his plans for the environment, having referred to climate change as a "hoax" cooked up by the Chinese. Trump has pledged to scrap restrictions on the production of American fossil fuels and to cut subsidies for clean energy.
Moreover, a Trump administration may try to weaken the Paris Agreement by withdrawing from it altogether, or by avoiding America's financial commitments aimed at helping other countries cope with climate change.
More generally, the election of climate change deniers like Trump and his cabinet are bad news for the fight against climate change. The more mainstream these delusional views become, the higher the risk of environmental catastrophe.
It was too easy during the populist campaigns of Brexit and Trump to paint regulations as bureaucratic and costly, while the other side failed to put forward a positive case. This is what we must do now. We need to show how an ambitious climate change and environmental strategy is good for jobs, growth and prosperity across the UK.
We need to call on Theresa May to insist on high environmental, animal welfare, health and safety standards in any potential trade deal with Trump. And we need to show that protecting the environment is vital for our future.
Kate Parminter is the Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader in the Lords and Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. During her time in the Lords, Kate has campaigned on a diverse range of issues including the environment, equality, animal welfare and education. Kate successfully campaigned to introduce a 5p charge on plastic bag usage to reduce the over reliance on a product that is incredibly damaging to the environment.
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