The last few days have seen a media frenzy over Liam Fox’s comments on chlorinated chicken and whether or not the UK would allow the process, as part of a future UK-US trade deal, post Brexit.
As an MEP I have spent a large amount of time working on, and scrutinizing, the EU-US trade deal commonly known as TTIP. During this process I saw first-hand how far apart the EU and US are on key issues like food, environmental and animal welfare standards.
The EU, negotiating as the single biggest economic block in the world, and on behalf of 500million potential new consumers for American business, were unable to get any major concessions from the Americans on these, and many other, key differences.
Does anyone think a post Brexit Britain, desperate for a trade deal after cutting ourselves off from our largest trading partner (the EU), will have more luck overcoming these hurdles? Or, will Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson bite Trump’s hand off for whatever scraps are thrown our way?
This band of merry neo-liberal Brexiteers seem to think that trade deals are drawn up on the back of a fag packet and secured over a glass of whisky, a cigar and a hand shake. The reality is very different.
Trade deals involve compromise, they involve give and take, and they have winners and losers. If we want access to the American financial service industry we have to give them something in return. So what will that be? Chlorinated chicken is only the start and surely hormone-fed beef and genetically modified crops, both common in the U.S but currently banned under EU regulation, will follow.
Chlorinated chicken is a fifth cheaper to produce than British chicken (mainly because US producers can bypass “farm to fork” hygiene protocols and just blast the end product with a chemical rinse). Therefore, if we allow it into the UK we will instantly be putting UK famers at a disadvantage. The same goes for other U.S agricultural products produced to a lower standard than those within the EU. The only logical next step would be to allow British farmers to use the same practices as their US counterparts in order to level the playing field.
My colleague Paul Brannen MEP, Labour’s European spokesperson on Agriculture, has warned against this very approach: “If Britain has lower environmental or animal health standards then our food produce will simply be denied access to the EU market, our farmers’ main external market. Farmers in our region adhere to extremely high standards, ensuring that our food is safe and of good quality. “Slashing regulations” could put livelihoods at risk.”
The EU will not allow produce into the single market of a lower standard, and rightly so. If we want to dance with Donald Trump, and his chlorinated chicken, then we will have to do so at the expense of the trade relationship with our EU neighbours. Bearing in mind we sell 60% of UK agricultural produce to the EU this would be catastrophic for British farming.
It is also worth mentioning that food standards were not even the most controversial areas of discussion between the EU and US negotiators. The American medical industry would be delighted to get its hands on the NHS, along with other UK public services, and the U.S is also insistent on arbitration courts known as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) scheme - which sit outside of the normal legal system and allow large corporations to sue national governments, something that is fundamentally unacceptable in a free and open society.
What is of greater concern is that during the TTIP negotiations the current Conservative government actively supported ISDS and made very little objection to the inclusion of public services in the deal. Meanwhile, since the Brexit vote, Andrea Leadsom has talked about “slashing regulation” on farmers, Liam Fox has refused to rule out chlorinated chicken, Boris Johnson had told our EU allies to “‘go whistle’” and Theresa May has taken every possible opportunity to ingratiate herself to Trump and avoided any criticism of him or his policies.
It is for all of these concerns that I wholeheartedly urge the government to focus on the best deal possible with our friends in the EU, for the benefit of farmers and customers alike.