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'Grim' exports

Withers wants EU-UK food standards aligned

James Withers

James Withers: ‘no sugar-coating these statistics’ (pic: Terry Murden)

Food and drink leader James Withers has called for speedy negotiations with the EU as ‘grim’ statistics show a collapse in exports to the bloc.

Mr Withers, CEO of Scotland Food and Drink, said a 63% plunge in EU-bound consignments in January compared to last year cannot be passed off as Covid-related.

There was an overall decline of 40.7% in goods exported to the EU.

Mr Withers laid the blame directly on the creation of” huge, new, non-tariff trade barriers with our biggest export markett”.

He is now calling for new talks that will ‘recognise aligned food standards and reduce the red tape burden”.

He says this week’s agreed delays to new regulations will help EU companies selling into Britain but British exporters have been given no assistance.

Fish trade has been among hardest hit

While British importers will find life easier, it will provide no incentive for the EU to come back to the table, he says.

Food and drink groups have now called for exporters to be given the same support that has been agreed to help imports from the EU.

Exports of fish and shellfish, Scotland’s largest food export category, were down by a crippling 83%, according to the data from the Office for National Statistics.

The meat and dairy sectors also reported a dramatic fall in EU exports with falls of 59% and 50% respectively.

Mr Withers said: “There is no sugar-coating these statistics, they are grim.

“We know Covid has reduced demand and there was stockpiling of products before the end of the year, however, right at the heart of this trade collapse is Brexit and the creation of huge, new, non-tariff trade barriers with our biggest export market.

“This simply can’t be talked away as a Covid issue. The crash in UK trade has not been seen in sales to non-EU markets, despite it being a global pandemic. Also, we did not see a fall like this at any point during the first lockdown.

“The financial damage to our seafood industry is particularly stark. A fall of over 80% in what is the UK’s biggest food export has brought a crisis to a sector reeling from the worst trading year in memory. You can’t stockpile fresh fish and shellfish, so that has not been a factor at all in these figures.”

He added that he expects to see an uplift in the February and March figures, but says the trade barriers now created are “real and costly” and “so-called teething problems are still with us” and have cost the industry tens of millions.

“This has to act as a catalyst to open negotiations with the EU to recognise aligned food standards and reduce the red tape burden,” said Mr Withers.

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“Without that, these trade figures will never recover to anything like the levels before. EU supply chains will permanently restructure, and UK businesses and jobs will lose out. 

“Of course, getting the EU to the table may now be much more difficult given that none of our EU counterparts will feel any real border friction until the end of the year. 

“They will enjoy a grace period on border checks so wrongly denied to UK exporters. The Brexit dividend thus far has turned out to be a huge competitive disadvantage for Scottish food exporters.”

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Treasury Spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, Christine Jardine MP, said: “These figures are disastrous. Businesses, jobs and livelihoods are being ruined and this botched, unnecessary Brexit deal just makes everything worse.

“The Chancellor needs to come up with the long-awaited long-term strategy now.  We need the big and bold action to save our economy.

“The budget was a missed opportunity and time is fast running out to save our economy before its too late. The Government cannot continue to blame this on the pandemic. The blame lies solely at their door.

“It is small businesses, already on the brink after months of lockdown, which will be hurt the most.

“They have lost out from Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal through no fault of their own. For the thousands of small businesses excluded from covid support schemes, this is just another kick in the teeth.”

WEEKEND COMMENT: TERRY MURDEN asks if we might have to beg our way back into the customs union



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