In the first of the series from our newest Strategic Advisor Geoffrey Podger, he shares his thoughts on the topic of Brexit.
Where are we on Brexit?
My apologies for starting this series of blogs by concentrating on Brexit. A recent Yougov opinion poll showed that the one thing that unites both Remainers and Brexiteers is that a majority (55% and 54 % of the two groups respectively) is that they find news about Brexit boring! I’m sure many readers must feel the same. And yet we are probably at the crossroads in the Brexit discussions and in the two areas of my interest (food safety and workplace health and safety regulation) we have reached quite different positions.
Health and safety after Brexit
Let’s start with workplace health and safety which is by far the easier of the two subject areas when it comes to forecasting developments post-Brexit. The simple truth is that there is unlikely to be any immediate short- term difference and that even in the medium term there’s unlikely to be a radical change. The reason is clear enough: the overall EU law on health and safety was very much constructed from pre-existing UK law stemming from our Health and Safety Act and Ministers here have been very clear that they do not want to weaken safeguards for British workers post-Brexit.
Moreover, enforcement of EU health and safety law is essentially left in the hands of national authorities, in our case by HSE and by local authorities. So, once we have fully left the EU, firms won’t notice much difference, if any. Medium term differences if they emerge are likely to come in divergence from a few specific EU regulations after we have left.
I say “a few” because there will be pressure from both sides of industry to continue to conform with future EU health and safety regulation and a future UK government is likely to want to diverge only where the EU is seeking a restriction which in the UK’s view is not evidence based and where there is not a significant impact on UK/EU trade. All then should be relatively quiet on the workplace health and safety front as we leave the EU.
Brexit’s impact on food safety
The impact of Brexit on food safety regulation is however much more difficult to forecast and could result in some quite radical change. Food safety is an area where there is currently not only predominantly EU regulation but also heavy EU Commission involvement in its enforcement. The Commission has as its objective “assuring a high level of food safety and animal plant health within the EU”.
It must be said that although high claims have been made for the effectiveness of the Commission’s activities in this area, recent years have nevertheless seen a series of problems from the Belgian dioxin crisis, the widespread discovery of horse meat masquerading as beef in processed meat products and the recent discovery of the insecticide fipronil in millions of eggs which both circulated in the EU and were exported to third countries. Indeed, the European Court of Auditors against this background have started a study to see if the basis and implementation of the EU food safety model are fit for purpose.
Against the background described in the previous paragraph you might well feel that this is an area where leaving the EU might well be beneficial. However, food imports from and exports to the EU are going to continue to be very important post-Brexit and given the extent to which food moves between countries in the period between leaving the farm and ending up as the processed product in the supermarket, it will still be extremely important for the UK authorities to remain in the “EU loop” as far as exchange of expertise and real-time information on potential food problems are concerned.
It would be good to be able to report that good progress is being made on this but it is not obvious. In particular the Commission do not seem to be interested in continued UK participation in its expert agencies, such as the European Food Safety Agency, other than on a diminished “third country basis”. For the moment we can’t tell if this is a negotiating ploy or a permanent sticking point – if the latter there is a real risk of weakening food safety in both the UK and EU and at its most extreme that the UK will form compensatory alliance with other overseas regulators outside the EU.
Post-Brexit trade deals
The above, however, is not the greatest unknown with the potential to have a major impact on food safety post-Brexit. A major advantage of Brexit has been seen as the UK’s ability to make its own trade deals with non-EU countries. However here, as elsewhere, “it takes two to tango” and the UK will inevitably find itself faced with demands that it admits to the UK market agri-food products previously held inadmissible – rightly or wrongly – by the EU.
Moreover, such negotiations will inevitably generate pressure to give priority to wider free trade issues over particular consumer sensitivities over food. All this will also determine the extent to which the UK has also to consider what further enforcement staff it will need regarding entry to the UK at the ports.
The truth therefore is that none of these questions regarding future food safety can be resolved even in principle until we know the kind of trade deal, if any, that the EU and the UK will make together post-Brexit and that is still shrouded in mystery. Even though these trade talks need to be finished by October to allow for ratification by March 2019, for the moment it really is that case on their outcome that “your guess is as good as mine”!
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