Divisions have opened within the UK government following reports that Boris Johnson’s administration is preparing to offer increased access to the UK market for US agriculture exports and possibly lower the bar on environmental and health standards.
Talks with US trade representative Robert Lighthizer formally began last week with an aim to secure a speedy deal. International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, who is leading the government’s negotiations with the US, is believed to be ready to cut tariffs on US agricultural imports in order to secure a free trade deal, the Financial Times reported this week.
In return, Truss argues that a trade deal with Washington will “secure new opportunities for farmers” by allowing UK farmers to increase exports of beef, lamb and dairy products and giving them access to cheaper fertiliser, crop protection chemicals and feed.
However, cabinet minister Michael Gove and Environment Secretary George Eustace are among a group of ministers who say that any agreement with the US must not lower UK agricultural standards.
On Wednesday (13 May), those tensions became evident when a group of Conservative MPs sought to amend the bill on the UK’s agriculture industry after Brexit that would have guaranteed a ban on chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef.
Although the Johnson government’s 80 seat majority allowed it to defeat the amendment by a comfortable 328 to 277 majority, the vote offered the first hint of the divisions that could emerge over a US-UK trade deal.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak also voted with the rebels, although the government later stated that he had voted by mistake.
Junior environment minister Victoria Prentis told lawmakers in the House of Commons that all EU import standards would be converted into UK law by the end of the transition period on 31 December.
She said all existing import requirements would continue to apply, including “a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef”.
“Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses and any changes to these standards would have to come before this Parliament,” she added.
The UK is set to open talks with Japan in the coming weeks, with ministers seeking a series of quick trade agreement to offset the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. However, talks with the EU on a post-Brexit trade deal have stalled with the two sides still far apart, particularly on fisheries and the question of regulatory alignment.
While minsters have talked up the importance on new post-Brexit trade deals, the Department for International Trade has suggested that the UK economy would increase by only 0.16% bigger over 15 years – equivalent to £3.4 billion (€4 billion) – if all tariffs with the US were eliminated.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]