Food and drink organizations in Scotland have expressed concern over the rush to negotiate a trade deal with Australia, with the UK government accused of avoiding scrutiny and consultation.
An open letter to Britain’s Secretary for International Trade Liz Truss has been signed by 14 companies and trade bodies warning of the way the talks are being conducted.
Ms Truss insisted that UK farmers had nothing to fear and had ‘a lot to gain’ from a free trade deal with Australia, while suggesting that a 5% tariff on whiskey could be deleted in the first deal written from scratch since the UK left the EU. .
But critics of the proposed deal fear that the zero tariffs and zero quotas deal the Canberra government demands would see British farmers and businesses undermined by Australian rivals.
The 14 major Scottish food and drink organizations behind the open letter have also expressed concern about the negotiations, suggesting they could set a bad precedent for future deals.
The letter, with signatories including the CEOs of National Farmers’ Union Scotland, Scottish Seafood Association and Scotland Food & Drink, said: âWe recognize the desire of the UK government to act quickly to create new opportunities with countries beyond the EU.
âHowever, we are concerned that the pace of these negotiations, in particular the free trade agreement with Australia, is too fast and prevents proper review and consultation.
âTrade agreements are complex and markets are sensitive; the impact of the Brexit deal has demonstrated this.
“The risks here are enormous for the entire food and beverage supply chain and, in the absence of any formal impact assessment to suggest otherwise, we remain extremely concerned about the impact on sensitive sectors of our industry. “
He added: âWe welcome an ambitious trade policy if it opens up new opportunities for our producers.
âHaving said that, we should have no illusions that the EU market remains the most important export market, as it is the destination for two thirds of all food exports.
“The new post-Brexit trade deals with our largest export market, on our doorstep, have made this market more expensive, complex and high risk to supply.”
Elaborating on concerns over the potential trade deal, Scotland Food & Drink Managing Director James Withers said: âAs a food and agriculture industry, we want to be ambitious for global trade. The future of our industry depends on it, and international sales of Scottish food and drink already amount to over Â£ 6 billion in a normal business year.
âHowever, if we rush trade deals, without any scrutiny and engagement with industry and other experts, we can harm UK businesses, communities, the environment and the UK’s international reputation.
âFrankly, the process behind the Australian negotiations is worrying.
âWe want to work with the UK government on trade, but it’s very difficult to do when everything is going behind closed doors.
âWe need a UK trade policy that not only protects the high standards of animal welfare, environment and food safety here, but acts as a force for their development on a global scale.
âThe importance of the UK-Australia deal goes beyond the relative value to the two nations; it could set the framework for all future trade agreements.
“So we have to get it right because the price of failure is too high.”
SNP MP Drew Hendry argued that the letter should be “an urgent wake-up call for the UK government to curb its damaging trade deal plans”.
He said: âThe warnings are clear that pursuing a trade deal between the UK and Australia – without proper review and process – will inflict more damage on our vital industries.
“Brexit has already cost our economy and businesses billions of pounds, and this Tory trade deal would deal yet another devastating blow at a critical time.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael added: âBuyer’s remorse already seems to be settling with ministers over the hasty and reckless deal they have reached with the EU.
âYou might think they would have learned to slow things down for negotiations with Australia and others so that they don’t make the same mistake twice. From today’s letter, the lesson seems to have exceeded them.
âIt’s time the government listened to local businesses to make sure we get trade deals that work for everyone. “