Brexit White Paper: a magic bullet for the food and drink industry?

This month’s analysis is from Simon Benadiba, political consultant, The Whitehouse Consultancy

While Brexit negotiations appeared completely deadlocked just a few weeks ago, with much uncertainty remaining over the UK’s position on the future of crucial areas such as trade in food, the government has recently made a major breakthrough by pulling its long-awaited Brexit White Paper out of the bag. At the core of this 104-page document – which sets out a blueprint for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union – is the proposal for an economic partnership based on the establishment of a new free trade area and the adoption a common rulebook for manufactured goods, including agri-food products.

As part of this common rulebook the UK would commit – by treaty – to harmonization with those EU rules which require to be checked at the border to ensure that only safe and wholesome food is placed on the market. In concrete terms, this means that the existing sanitary and phytosanitary requirements in force at EU level would be incorporated into the common rulebook and would continue to be consistently applied in the UK to protect human, animal and plant health.

Arguably this convergence of standards could bring significant benefits for food businesses, as this would remove the need for regulatory and customs checks. It would also give consumers a much-needed peace of mind that the food on their plates meet the same safety standards as today’s.

But if the White Paper appears, on the face of it, to create the conditions for a promising and profitable future for the food sector, Brussels officials were quick to dismiss the proposal for a common rulebook as yet another attempt to cherry-pick EU rules and, in turn, threaten the integrity of the so-called acquis communautaire: the body of EU law that currently applies to members of the club

Regardless of how this proposal is perceived across the channel, it may not be all good news for UK businesses either. Alongside regulatory harmonization with sanitary and phytosanitary rules, the White Paper further suggests that rules relating to ‘wider food policy’, such as marketing and labelling requirements, should be governed by equivalence arrangements. In a country where 61% of food and drink exports are destined for the EU market, it is feared that equivalence agreements, as opposed to harmonization or mutual recognition arrangements, could put UK food businesses at risk by jeopardising their competitiveness.

In addition, as the UK will no longer be a member of the Council of the EU and will lose representation in the European Parliament, it will not have a vote on relevant rule changes affecting the common rulebook and may therefore end up becoming a rule taker, not a rule maker. This, however, does not mean that proposed changes to the rulebook could not be voted down by the UK Parliament or that the UK will not be able to diverge from the rulebook. As ever with Brexit, it will all depend on the negotiating power of each of the parties involved.

For more information on how these changes may impact your business, visit   

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