Tuesday 15 January will no doubt be a day that is discussed and written about by historians and academics for years to come and for a very good reason; it was a tragedy. Celebrations all round; both remain and leave factions of the Brexit debate deemed it a victory, but, in reality, it was not just the government that lost, it was society, all of us.
With (at the time of writing) only 72 days to go until “B day”, we are faced with ever increasing levels of division and uncertainty. Brexit was always going to be a divisive piece of legislation, Brexiteers are very fond, at every opportunity, of braying about their overwhelming majority, no matter how tenuous, but a 52% win is simply not an overwhelming majority; in terms of the electorate the country was more or less divided into two and we remain a divided nation. In terms of geography there were and still are huge regional divisions.
I’m sure that in 2016 nobody thought a single item of legislation would generate division in society that has been demonstrated by the inglorious episode of the past two and a half years. It was an election promise, but there were numerous other election promises that were conveniently ignored, in reality a sop to some of the more right wing members of government.
The ignominious referendum campaigns that followed were both dishonourable; on the one side a lackluster, almost non-existent, campaign generated by complacency and arrogance and on the other a campaign constructed around a series of half truths and lies, liberally seasoned with xenophobia and appeals to the most basic instincts of some sectors of society, fuelled by media hype. At the time there where genuine, robust arguments for both sides which were never aired.
Did nobody foresee the problems that would arise from the “Irish border”? An intrinsic element of the Good Friday Agreement was an open border; fine while both North and South were within the EU, effectively an internal border, but once we leave, it becomes an external (hard) border, contrary to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It was always going to be difficult and as time passed made more complicated by the motley assortment of other organisations that have been happy to leap onto the Brexit bandwagon in pursuit of their own agendas.
So what has all this got to do with sheep farmers? What ever happens from now on will have a significant impact on the sheep sector for years; we are effectively faced with four possible outcomes. Probably the least desirable would be a “Hard Brexit”, which, in a worst-case scenario, could bring about a total cessation of all EU sheep and sheep meat trade, at least in the short term while new regulations are drafted,which could take six months or more.
OK, a lot of current legislation is EU derived but on leaving, the situation changes. We become a third party country, subject to different regulations plus the possibility of tariffs once regulatory hurdles are overcome.
Could we find new markets for our sheep meat quickly and easily? No, certainly not in time to avert significant problems for sheep producers.
Could we consume the lamb currently being exported to the EU? Not at current prices. Huge price drops may lift consumption, but not enough to absorb the 30%+ that currently crosses the channel.
How many abattoirs would fold as a result of a month or so with no significant throughput? Could we stop New Zealand imports? Not legally under existing international trade agreements. The National Sheep Association has already been in discussion with NZ exporters requesting they consider the plight of UK producers should the worst happen, but this will be voluntary restraint based on co-operation between the UK and NZ. It will no doubt be our volume buyers that will ultimately influence that decision.
Can we rely on supermarkets to support domestic production? Almost certainly no, their concern will be their bottom line and dividends.
Could we rely on support from the government? Gove has well and truly nailed his credentials to the mast of the good ship “Green Lobby”. As farmers we are a soft target, only this week he has targeted farmers and rural communities in part of his campaign to reduce air pollution, citing ammonia emission from fertilisers and FYM and particulate emissions from wood burning stoves. Diesel has been persona non grata for a long time, but we don’t see much pressure on urban communities, why not convert all city buses to electric. He is also advocating that consumers reduce their meat consumption, a really useful suggestion at this juncture! Add to this the wider damage to the national economy and some of the practical considerations of a hard Brexit, the infrastructural impacts in parts of the South East (e.g. the M20 corridor) would be quite significant, simply getting around could become extremely difficult due to customs delays and backlogs of cross Channel commercial traffic. Access to Ashford market a vital link in the regional lamb supply chain could be dramatically impacted.
A “Hard Brexit” could and, almost certainly, would be disastrous for the sheep sector, so what about a negotiated settlement? Where do we go? The EU has to operate within EU laws, complicated by the fact that any new agreement would need to be acceptable to all of the remaining 27 EU member countries, some of which are not inclined to do us any great favours, and would be delighted to have the opportunity to use fresh negotiation as a lever to pursue their own agendas. A softer Brexit, e.g the Norwegian model or Customs Union, which could circumvent some of issues arising from the Irish Border conundrum, will almost certainly not satisfy the leave lobby, nor fulfill the outcomes of the referendum. Any new negotiated settlement is unlikely to have a significantly different complexion to that currently on offer, and this would generate issues for farming and sheep producers.
A second referendum, favoured by some, would I suspect be just as divisive, regardless of the outcome. It is also undemocratic, we have voted already. That said we are now in a significantly different environment, the electorate are very much better informed and aware of the extensive implications of leaving the EU, information that may have led to a different outcome in 2106.
Staying in the EU would certainly be extremely divisive and further erode the public trust in government, but would it mean that we returned to the status quo, life as normal, could we simply pretend that the past 2.5 years never happened? No, we could not simply return to the European fold with our proverbial tail tucked between our legs expecting to be treated in the same way. Our influence and credibility would be considerably and ominously depleted, we would be sat on the EU naughty step facing a long, at times, arduous, struggle to regain the trust and support of other member states, rightly so. But what about sheep farmers? We are, generally, a tough and pragmatic lot, whatever the outcome the sheep sector will survive, although it may be of a completely different complexion, some will go, that is inevitable, there may be some surprises in those that are unable to weather the transition, it won’t all be those that are currently perceived as being the weakest. But we will need to adapt; our production and marketing environment will change whatever the outcome, possibly quite significantly and we need to be open minded and prepared to adjust how we produce to suit that new environment.