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BIRMINGHAM — Farmers are seen as an “inconvenience” to U.K. trade policy and were “sacrificed” in favor of the services sector in Britain’s first post-Brexit deals, the head of the National Farmers’ Union warned.
NFU President Minette Batters told POLITICO she is “really wary” of the government’s approach to trade in the wake of the U.K.’s deals with Australia and Zealand, which see tariffs on beef and sheep-meat phased out and quotas on the quantities they can send rise over 10-15 years.
As Britain prepares to join a key Indo-Pacific trade bloc, Batters said she is watching negotiations like a “hawk.”
She will, she said, be seeing if the U.K. offers members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), including agricultural giants Canada and Mexico, the same access on agriculture.
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“We’re ambitious to be exporting more, but we want to have our farmers and growers at the heart of trade policy,” she said in an interview at the NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham. “At the moment, I feel they’re an inconvenience to trade policy.”
Speaking Tuesday night, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch pushed back at claims that the U.K. has thrown farmers under a bus in trade talks.
“No matter how nice the deal is, there will always be a group of people who see it as a zero-sum game, and ‘we’ve got something that they haven’t got,’ or vice-versa,” she said at a POLITICO event in London.
She added: “I think improving the comms on how trade is actually great for farming is one of the challenges that I need to tackle and help them feel more reassured.”
Former Environment Secretary George Eustice is among those who have argued the U.K.’s deal with Australia is bad for farmers. During his first attempt at becoming prime minister last year, Rishi Sunak was also critical of the “one-sided” agreement. Labour Leader Keir Starmer said this week he is “concerned” the deal will do “real harm to farming and rural communities.”
“I think it’s a well-known fact that agriculture was sacrificed on the back of the service sector in Australia and New Zealand,” Batters argued. “If they sacrifice agriculture on the back of services into [CPTPP], that will be really, really bad news.”
The U.K. insists the deals’ in-built safeguards offer farmers protection. Defenders of the agreement also reject the idea that Britain could be flooded with meat from Australia and New Zealand, whose main export markets are closer to home.
At the NFU conference, Farming Minister Mark Spencer said the deals present a “massive opportunity” and a “new dawn” for cooperation that will allow Britain to break into markets in Asia.
“We can work together with those countries and go and supply those markets. That requires cooperation and work,” he said, arguing in favor of counterseasonality (meaning the U.K. and the Southern Hemisphere countries can supply nations in Asia at different times of the year).
“We need to embrace all of those countries around the world — particularly former Commonwealth countries — and make the most of those opportunities,” he said.
Making his second appearance at an NFU conference this week, Starmer put more meat on the bones of Labour’s trade policy, insisting his party will uphold Britain’s standards and tackle barriers to trade with the European Union.
“One of the biggest concerns about trade deals now we’ve left the EU is the sort of tendency and inclination to drive standards down in order to get a deal. So, that is the wrong approach,” he argued. “We have to be clear that there have to be high standards wired into our trade agreements.”
The opposition leader said his party still wants to pursue trade deals and tackle trade barriers facing U.K. exporters. “We need to also recognize that when it comes to trade, particularly trade that involves farming etc., distance matters,” he said.
He added: “That’s why we do not accept that the Brexit deal we’ve got at the moment is good enough. We will improve on that and make improvements for farming.”
The U.K. government has repeatedly stressed that it believes trade policy will not compromise its environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Jack Blanchard contributed reporting.