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The Milk House: Your brief guide to Brexit

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 May 2019

For the last three years, the word “Brexit” has dominated international headlines. Most North Americans know that it deals with the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union (EU) but, beyond that, the details get hazy.

It’s like the person you talk to at your kid’s soccer game all the time but never knew the name of – and then it went on too long to ask. If a deal is not reached, it may have long-lasting and devastating consequences for the UK economy – especially for British farmers.

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For all you bad soccer moms or dads out there, here’s your quick and simple guide to understanding Brexit and its impact on UK agriculture.

How did it happen?

What would eventually become the EU was formed after World War II under the proposition countries that traded together were less likely to go to war with each other. The United Kingdom joined the European Community (predecessor to the EU) in 1973.

Fueled in part by anti-immigration sentiment, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) gained growing influence in Parliament the last handful of years.

The UK operates by a coalition government, meaning if one party does not have enough seats to make a majority in Parliament, they must combine with one or more other parties until a majority is reached.

In 2015, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron needed the support of the anti-EU UKIP to win election and thus promised a referendum that allowed the British people to vote on leaving the EU (named Brexit, an abbreviation of “Britain’s Exit”) – despite Cameron himself and most other politicians being in favour of staying. No one thought the referendum had a chance of passing.

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And then it did.

Everyone in Europe remembers where they were on June 24, 2016, when they woke up to hear the UK had voted to leave the EU by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. It was a shock felt around the world.

Although polls suggest most British actually want to remain in the EU, many of those in favour of staying assumed the outcome and didn’t vote – or even voted for Brexit just for the novelty of doing so.

Brexiteers also stoked racial and ethnic fears, putting forth anti-immigrant propaganda. On the other side, major British politicians didn’t put enough energy into explaining the vast and severe economic impact Brexit would have on the commonwealth.

What’s happening now?

Although Brexit is largely unpopular with both British leaders and its people, the nation feels compelled to respect the vote and continue on with it for fear of violating the democratic process (even though, technically, the vote was not legally binding).

According to EU law, the UK and the EU have two years to negotiate an exit plan that will allow a smooth transition for citizens, businesses and trading agreements.

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Theresa May, the current prime minister, triggered the process March 29, 2017. Thus far, the terms to which the UK and the EU will part ways have not been agreed upon and extensions have been granted.

One of the major holdups for a deal involves the complications with the Irish border. Northern Ireland, part of the UK, hasn’t had a controlled border with the Republic of Ireland since 2005.

Re-implementing a “hard” border that restricts the passage of goods and people will once again devastate the counties and towns around it, as economies on both sides will be hard hit as well as people who may live on one side but work on the other.

Nonetheless, leaving the border open is complicated due to the fact the Republic of Ireland is in the EU, while Northern Ireland will soon not be. Without Irish border checks, goods and people could flow between the EU and the UK without supervision, making for a customs nightmare.

What does this mean for British farmers?

The Brexit vote already spelled bad news for British farmers, as they will soon receive fewer subsidies and other forms of support they enjoyed in the EU. A “no-deal” Brexit that doesn’t make specific concessions for trade would be catastrophic.

Although the UK is in regulatory alignment with EU standards, a “no-deal” Brexit would officially make them new trading partners again, which would require animal health checks and facility inspections of at least six months before the UK can once more export to the EU.

This would be, in effect, a six-month trading ban on Britain’s biggest export market. In addition, once they are allowed to export food products to the EU, they would then be exposed to substantial tariffs that will make UK products much less competitive.

The UK has always relied on France to buy most of its sheep meat and southern Europe to purchase the brown chicken meat less popular in the UK as well as the internal parts of the animal like tripe, kidney and heart. Last year, 90 percent of British beef exports were to the EU.

Some experts say the UK may lose as much as 25 percent of its farmers next year if a deal is not made, with small sheep farmers being particularly vulnerable.

All UK farm organizations have been writing to the British government, pleading them to reach an agreement before leaving the EU.

What happens next?

There is dwindling hope that somehow politicians will put a stop to Brexit and increasing fears concerning what happens once they leave the EU. The UK will eventually have to look to other parts of the globe to export its farm goods.

The Trump administration released its “negotiating objectives” for a future trade deal involving agricultural products, demanding the UK remove certain health and safety checks on the food it imports.

However, Theresa May responded by insisting the UK will not lower its food standards nor accept products such as chlorinated chicken and genetically modified crops from the U.S. She states that the UK will publish their own U.S.-UK trade objectives “shortly.” Dare it be said she has enough on her plate already.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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