Blog: Dean BestTheresa May's Florence speech - UK food industry (and the EU) react

Dean Best | 22 September 2017

May speaks in Florence on 22 September 2017 (Credit: Crown Copyright Copyright: Lee Goddard

May speaks in Florence on 22 September 2017 (Credit: Crown Copyright Copyright: Lee Goddard

This afternoon, UK Prime Minister Theresa May gave her much-awaited speech on Brexit in the Italian city of Florence.

May, facing criticism both within the UK and in Brussels over London's negotiation tactics and rumours of splits in her senior team on Brexit, today attempted to give fresh impetus to talks with the EU on the country's departure from the bloc.

The Prime Minister set out a plan on to retain full access to the EU single market for "about" two years after the UK's formal departure from the union to try to reassure businesses on both sides of the English Channel, a period of transition that will assuage some concerns in the food industry - for now. The UK is set to leave the EU in March 2019.

On the so-called divorce bill, one of three issues on which the EU wants agreement before discussing any future trade arrangement, May said the UK would "honour commitments made during the period of our membership". That said, the Prime Minister made no reference to a figure of EUR20bn touted in the media in the run-up to the speech.

On Ireland, another of the issues on which agreement is needed before trade negotiations start, there was no further information from May to add to the position paper put out by the UK last month.

And the third issue, the rights of EU citizens, May said those "in the UK will carry on living their lives as before" and added the UK would "incorporate our agreement fully into UK law and make sure the UK courts can refer directly to it".

She added: "Where there is uncertainty around underlying EU law, I want the UK courts to be able to take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice with a view to ensuring consistent interpretation."

In the long term, May said the UK wants to have a "comprehensive and ambitious" new economic arrangement with the EU. She said the UK wanted to see "a creative solution", rather than a deal based on agreements with, say, Canada or with countries in the European Economic Area.

The UK Food and Drink Federation said it supported "the Prime Minister's intent to move negotiations on".

In a statement, the FDF said: "The clock is ticking and businesses need time to plan and prepare. The intention to negotiate an implementation phase based on our current arrangements with the EU27 is a welcome step in helping businesses manage the ongoing uncertainty."

However, the industry body representing food manufacturers operating in the UK warned: 
“Our firms face difficult investment decisions and there is a huge amount of work to be done in a short space of time. The onus is on the UK government and the EU to demonstrate concrete progress by the time of the October European Council to reassure business and consumers.

"If we are to feed the country in the way UK consumers have come to expect and enjoy, we must have this transition period which minimises any disruption and requires only one point of change. Transition must include continued access to our valued EU workforce, a stable regulatory regime, frictionless customs and trade, and a practical solution to Irish border issues.”

UK dairy manufacturers welcomed May's proposal for a transition period but said it still had "concerns" over access to labour from the EU and over farming subsidies.

"We welcome a transition period as this would provide stability. However, we also believe it is important that both the UK and EU take steps to address ongoing concerns over access to skilled and unskilled EU labour and subsidies for UK farmers once this period ends. These represent key areas of concern for the UK dairy industry," Dairy UK chief executive Dr Judith Bryans said.

UK farmers echoed the support for May's comments on a transitional period in which the country would still have access to the EU single market but said more detail was needed on certain issues "if farmers and growers are to have the certainty to plan and invest in their businesses in the future".

Meurig Raymond, president of the UK's National Farmers Union, said: "We were ... very interested to hear the Prime Minister’s commitment to maintaining free movement of people involving a registration system for new arrivals. However, the industry desperately needs more detail on how the immigration system will work both during and after the transition – vague pledges and offers are not enough if potential workers are to be reassured that they can legally take up the jobs on offer.

“The Prime Minister’s speech today reflects many of the Brexit policies the NFU has proposed since the EU referendum. Despite the lack of detail, we hope that today’s speech will move negotiations forward so that there is stability for agriculture, businesses, the economy and society at large after Brexit."

Over in Brussels, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator in the Brexit talks, said May had "expressed a constructive spirit" in her talks.

Barnier added: "The speech shows a willingness to move forward, as time is of the essence. We need to reach an agreement by autumn 2018 on the conditions of the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal from the European Union.

"The sooner we reach an agreement on the principles of the orderly withdrawal in the different areas – and on the conditions of a possible transition period requested by the United Kingdom – the sooner we will be ready to engage in a constructive discussion on our future relationship."

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator and vocal critic so far of the UK during the early stages of the negotiations, said May's speech meant it "appears that he the position of the UK was becoming more realistic".

However, in a Facebook post, Verhofstadt had words of warning about the rights of EU citizens and the position of the European Court of Justice during any transition period.

And Verhofstadt said the UK needed to provide more details on its border with Ireland and on how it sees its long-term relationship with the EU.

"Apart from citizens' rights and the financial settlement, the EU always made clear that the Irish question is one of our priorities. I didn't hear yet how the UK government wants to avoid a hard border or physical checks on the island of Ireland. This only seems possible if Northern Ireland remains part of the Customs Union.

"With regards to the future relationship, I heard a lot about what the UK doesn't want (the single market, the customs union, the EEA or an FTA). I hope to hear from them soon how they see the "deep and special partnership" with the EU. I reiterate our opinion that an association agreement is the preferable framework to shape our future relationship."

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