Herald Column May 15th 2020

The highlight of my week in parliament was the debate on the Agriculture Bill. Though primarily England only, it is an important Bill for Wales as it starts the arduous process of responding to the destructive complexities caused by Brexit, not least because to get a Withdrawal Agreement Boris Johnson had to split the British state into two different economic zones. Whilst Northern Ireland effectively remains within the European orbit - Wales, Scotland and England will have to create new internal market structures and form a new customs union.     I’m not quite sure how Welsh farmers and businesses are going to respond when they work out that their counterparts in Northern Ireland will have full unfettered action to the European market whilst we lose unfettered access to the destination of 90% of Welsh meat exports and three quarters of all food products.

During the debate I highlighted how the current pandemic exposed the absurdity of the current British State food model which has left the power over 70 of all food sales in the hands of only four companies. This oligopoly has enabled food producers to be squeezed to the point of unprofitability and led to a huge trade imbalance where the UK is far too reliant imports.  I called for food production to be ramped up, underpinned by local processing capability so supply chains are localise allowing people to buy local produce directly.

In leaving the EU single Market a new internal market will need to be created for Wales, Scotland and England.   The key issue as always when it comes to new structures is who is responsible for creating the rules and regulating them.   There is little doubt that Westminster, which views Brexit as a means of clipping Wales and Scotland, will consider these to be matters for them and them alone. However, during the debate I warned British Government Ministers that Wales and Scotland have moved a long way in recent decades and our people are highly unlikely to take kindly to the side-lining of our national government and parliament – especially as Brexiteers were promising Wales a bonanza of new powers during the referendum.

I concluded my speech by concentrating on international trade policy, where there was a complete absence of any commitment to safeguard food standards in the Bill. This gives an indication of the sort of trade deals the Tories are desperate to strike.   Welsh producers would not only lose access to their biggest export markets if we drop from European standards, but as I have repeatedly warned in the House of Commons would be completely undercut by lower standard food imports with considerable impacts for public health.

This is where power is important. As things currently stand, Wallonia a region of Belgium will have more influence over EU trade policy than Wales has over policy determined in Westminster. Let that sink in, because the current trade policy of the British Government is to give equal weight to trade negotiations with the US and the EU, despite requiring 60 US deals to make up for what would be lost if they botch the current Brexit negotiations. I would imagine that the power of veto for Wales and Scotland would secure a more considerate approach by Westminster.

 

I finished my speech by urging the British Government to stick to European standards and introduce formalised joint decision making structures for internal market and trade policy. I fear however that the ideological zealotry of the Westminster establishment will trump my advice.


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