Blog: John ShepherdUK food producers call for "best possible single market access" post-Brexit

John Shepherd | 1 December 2016

Since Theresa May took over as UK Prime Minister in the wake of the country's referendum vote to quit the European Union, she and her ministers have been at pains not to divulge their negotiating position for leaving the bloc.

May has said the formal 'notice to quit the EU', otherwise known as Article 50, will be triggered by the end of next March. 

Therefore, starved of any details of what "benefits" the UK wants to try and hang onto post-Brexit, commentators and analysts have been seizing on every whisper form the corridors of power for clues to what the country's future relationship with the EU might be.

Imagine the excitement then when, earlier this week, the long lenses of the media teams camped out near the PM's office captured on camera the hand-written notes of an aide to an MP as the two left a meeting at the newly-created "Brexit" department.

One of the notes, an apparent summary of a possible negotiating stance, suggested the UK wants "its cake and eat it".

The government was quick to dismiss the apparent lapse of confidentiality, saying the notes did not represent government policy. But if that's the case, it might be a pity, because it seems some of the country's major food producers want just that.

In a letter sent to The Times newspaper on 1 December, 75 of the UK’s largest food producers came together to call on the government to negotiate for continued access to labour after Brexit and for the "best possible access" to the EU's single market.

Signatories to the letter, which was supported by farmers' leaders from across the UK, included the heads of Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer and Weetabix. In total, all signatories represent the four UK farming unions and 71 leading food businesses with a collective turnover of over GBP92bn (US$116bn) and employing over 925,000 people across the UK.

The letter says: "For our sector maintaining tariff-free access to the EU single market is a vital priority. It is where 75% of our food exports go, so all our farming and food businesses wish to achieve this outcome."

In addition, the letter says the sector "needs access to EU and non-EU seasonal and permanent labour, alongside assurances that EU workers already working permanently in the UK are allowed to remain". "This access to labour is essential as it underpins the UK food chain's timely delivery of high-quality affordable food to consumers. We would urge that the UK government seeks both these goals as the whole of society and the economy will benefit."

In the fractious months still to come before Article 50 is triggered, the government might be wise to use the food industry's backing to generate some goodwill and harmony at home before entering the fray in Brussels. We shall see.

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