Michael Gove has shattered Brexiteer hopes of unilateral free trade by announcing Britain will impose tariffs on EU imports to protect farmers in a “difficult and damaging no-deal Brexit”.
In a speech to farmers, the environment secretary also warned there was “no absolute guarantee” the UK would be able to export food to the EU if a deal was not reached.
He said it was “critically important” that MPs are not “blithe or blasé” about the risks a no-deal Brexit would pose to certain industries.
Gove, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign in 2016, said the EU has been “clear” that it will impose duties on British food exports, including at least 40% tariffs on sheep meat and beef, causing a “significant and damaging effect” for farmers.
He said the government would therefore set out “specific and robust” tariff protections for farmers in a no-deal scenario.
Gove made the announcement in a speech to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which warned that a no-deal Brexit would be “the stuff of nightmares” for British farmers.
The environment secretary said: “The government is, of course, doing everything it can not just to secure a deal but also to mitigate the impact of leaving without a deal. The NFU and others have made strong arguments about the need to ensure stronger tariff protection for British farming than any other sector of the economy.
“In particular, you have argued that we need tariffs on sheep meat, beef, poultry, dairy, both milk and cheese; and pig meat in order to safeguard domestic production. Your concerns have been heard and announcement on new UK tariffs in a no-deal scenario – with specific and robust protections for farming – will be made shortly.”
He went on: “I emphatically do not want to run the risks leaving without a deal would involve.
“It is critically important that every decision-maker in London, every parliamentarian who will vote in coming weeks, understands what no-deal would involve for British farmers and food producers. No one can be blithe or blasé about the consequences.”
Gove also warned that other EU countries are “hungry” to replace Britain as a major exporter of meat to Europe.
He said the likes of Spain and Romania would seek to supply France, one of the UK’s best customers for sheep meat, while New Zealand and Australia would enjoy tariff-free trade for a quota of the produce.
Even if tariffs were only introduced for a short period under no-deal, the UK would find it difficult to regain its foothold in the market, he said.
“If European buyers do switch contracts because tariffs make our exports significantly more expensive, it will be difficult to re-establish our market access even if those tariffs come down in the future.”
NFU president Minette Batters said it was “absolutely shocking” that with five weeks to go until Brexit, it was not clear to farmers what trade conditions they would be operating in or what the country’s future agricultural policy would look like.
It was also not clear whether fruit, flowers and vegetable growers would have access to a sizeable global seasonal workers scheme.
“I make no apology for saying that leaving the EU without a deal would be a catastrophe for British farming,” she told the annual conference in Birmingham.