It feels like the kind of year where we seem to lurch from one major political event to another. Even the Summer recess, normally a time where newspaper headlines give way to the silly season, has this year been set aside for the mammoth task of Brexit negotiation.And here we are about to enter yet another period of political intensity with the UK party conference season about to get underway this weekend and the Prime Minister having delivered a seminal speech on Brexit in Florence.
Commentators across Europe have cited the unprecedented nature of events over the last couple of years, but this conference season has more legitimacy than most to lay claim to the description. It comes at a unique time for the UK’s political leaders who not only need to set out a fiscal agenda with the first Autumn Budget for a couple of decades around the corner, they also need to be considering what else we need to be doing domestically to ready ourselves for a successful exit from the EU.
Let's hope they are mindful of that dual task and (this really would be unprecedented) have their eye on the long term rather than just thinking in immediate Parliamentary cycles. Because while we have heard some reassuring noises about an implementation period, most recently from the Prime Minister herself, and while farmers have had confirmation that Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies will be matched until 2022, we can't wait till then to figure out what we do next. Agriculture relies on far longer planning cycles than Parliamentary terms and the food and farming sector needs a successful Brexit.So, as if our political leaders didn't need more on their 'to do' list this party conference season, here's a wish list on behalf of Arla that we'd like to hear mentioned in the coming weeks:
Firstly, we need a firm and united commitment towards a final trade deal between the UK and the EU that is free from tariff and non-tariff barriers in milk and dairy. Our ability to sell produce freely within Europe and beyond is a key to many livelihoods and must be protected. Domestic tax incentives and equivalent CAP support will only go so far if the entire viability of the dairy market is jeopardised by trade barriers.
On the new UK Agricultural policy we want to continue the smooth market orientation of a policy focusing on the competitiveness of UK dairy farmers today and in the future and sustain a level playing field with EU farmers. I was encouraged by the Prime Minister’s commitment to a period of implementation that she outlined in her speech in Florence, as our industry, by its very nature, needs a long time to adapt to changes. As such, a newUK agriculture policy needs to be fleshed out now so that farmers can plan accordingly and ensure compliance in time.
We also need to ensure that our industry can continue to access the vast and hugely beneficial labour pool that the EU provides, as agriculture and food and drink are complex sectors which require a broad range of skills. We can – and should – be improving the skills base in the existing UK labour pool through the proliferation of apprenticeships, but it is also critical that we can continue to access labour from the EU in coming years, through a system of mutual migration.
Only by acting now to ensure we have the relevant mechanics in place can we future-proof food and farming and ensure a Brexit that maintains our competitiveness. Party conference season also coincides with British Food Fortnight this year - a chance to celebrate everything that is special about British produce. Let's hope that this backdrop is not lost on conference attendees and that they lay groundwork in the days ahead that ensures we still have as much to celebrate in decades to come.