Speaking at a hearing with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, Theresa Villiers told the panel that under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the UK would be in a position to penalise countries attempting to import food that didn’t meet high standards.
“If we do leave on WTO terms, we have set out – under the previous Government – a no-deal tariff schedule that does provide some protection, albeit we have to strike a careful balance to ensure we have a tariff schedule that doesn’t drive prices up unnecessarily,” Villiers explained.
“The way WTO have tended to work in the past, animal welfare concerns have been dealt with via a tariff mechanism. Trade negotiations tend to operate on the basis that the tariffs can come down so long as the standards start to go up. In terms of an immediate move to WTO rules, that would be determined by our no-deal schedules.”
However, if Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to push through a UK/US trade deal that ignored the standards currently set under EU legislation, parliament wouldn’t be able to do much to stop him, claimed the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) at the University of Sussex.
The EU Withdrawal Act 2018 allowed the creation of more than 10,000 pages of new legislation to retain EU rules, including on food safety.
Some of these provide extensive scope for ministers to make future changes to food safety legislation, allowing for significant concessions to the US over genetically modified crops and pesticides, in the pursuit of a trade deal, without the level of scrutiny that primary legislation would provide.
Dr Emily Lydgate, senior lecturer in environmental law at the University of Sussex and fellow of the UKTPO, said: “In the event of a no-deal, or a basic EU-UK Free Trade Agreement, the UK Government will be under pressure to make a success of Brexit through new trade agreements.
“The concern is that ministers have extensive scope to make significant food safety concessions in order to reach an agreement with the US, potentially in the face of opposition from consumers or food producers who would worry about losing access to the EU market.
Legislation to meet UK needs
Meanwhile, Villiers reiterated the Government’s stance on maintaining the same levels of high standards that are currently set out in EU law, but she admitted that plans were in place to make legislation more in line with the needs of circumstances in the UK.
“We are committed to maintaining the same high standards and outcomes, but the means by which we deliver those outcomes and standards may diverge from the EU over time,” she added. “There are different ways to get to the same result.
“We’re determined – whether its animal welfare, food safety or environmental standards – that we retain the highest standards, but we may well take a different view in the future on how best to deliver those. There will be mechanisms that are better suited and better targeted to our domestic circumstances.
“The advantage of leaving the EU is to be able to tailor a regulatory regime that is much better suited to our domestic circumstances. We’re going to be doing that, for example, in relation to fisheries and farming.”