One could tell a surprisingly comprehensive history of the Brexit project by simply talking about food.
From curved bananas to non-recyclable teabags, Eurosceptics have long relied on myths and scurrilous half-truths about groceries to stoke public resentment over the supposed red-tape lunacy of the European Union.
More recently, Brexiteers have taken up the (mostly false) idea that the EU discriminates intensely against African smallholders in order to protect its own inefficient farmers. The pro-Brexit Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski posed sombrely in front of a tray of supermarket lemons this month in order to lambast “the EU protectionist racket”.
But it’s not just Africans who will benefit from Brexit. The Sun informs us that after we leave the EU the Great British shopper will all be able to save 40p on a pack of butter and 31p on a punnet of strawberries and much else besides thanks to the tariff-torching free trade deals we will inevitably sign with other countries.
Brexiteers seem to believe that a way to a Briton’s support is through his or her stomach. Taking control is framed as taking control, above all else, of our grocery basket.
But it’s not all one way. The Brexit food fight is a symmetrical one. US “chlorinated” chicken has become the spectre at the feast, a symbol of what the powerful US agricultural lobby will ram down our throats as the price of an inevitably unequal American trade deal. And few of the no-deal consequence warnings cut through to the public quite as effectively as the threat of a sandwich shortage.
They sometimes try to conceal it, but the agenda of some Brexiteers is plainly deregulatory. One of the reasons the forecasts produced by a small band of pro-Brexit economists show long-term gains for the UK, when every other credible study shows precisely the opposite, is that their models assume we will in future shed all our domestic product standards, including on food imports, and trade on what are known as “world prices”.
But the lines between ideological fantasy and reality are becoming blurred. UK ministers insist there will be no compromising of high food standards after Brexit. They also say that in the event of a no-deal Brexit they would waive customs and standards checks on trucks delivering produce from the EU in order to mitigate transport bottlenecks and supermarket shortages. They have not said what, in those circumstances, is to stop some criminal group importing unsafe produce to the UK. Perhaps they believe it’s a risk worth taking.
Regulation 1168 of the European Council, from 2011, is just the sort of Brussels red tape that Brexiteers love to hate. It lays out a host of requirements for food manufacturers, from providing detail on the geographical origin of produce to its nutritional content.
But it also says that packaging should warn buyers about ingredients that can cause a dangerous allergic reaction. Fifteen-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laerouse from Fulham died in 2016 after eating a baguette from Pret A Manger which did not list traces of sesame, to which she was allergic, on its packaging.
This was not, in fact, a requirement under the EU regulation because it was a fresh handmade product, although many people, in light of this tragedy, believe this is a regulatory loophole that urgently needs to be closed. The coroner in the case said last week that he would be writing to the government to raise concerns about “inadequate” food labelling regulation.
Brexiteers will argue that this extremely sad incident has no bearing on the issue of EU membership. And in one sense they’re correct. There’s no reason why the UK post-Brexit shouldn’t have new domestic regulations on food labelling that are even tighter in some specific areas.
Yet this, of course, is at odds with their deregulatory impulses and the dream of importing food at world prices. Moreover, it highlights a huge and still unrecognised blind spot on trade. For it is pan-European regulatory harmonisation, regardless of whether those regulations are well-designed or not, that helps UK food exporters to tap into a significant market in the EU. It is this harmonisation that dismantles what Margaret Thatcher once called the “insidious” trade barriers of “different national standards”.
Assuming that the rest of the world does not join us post-Brexit in a bonfire of food standards – and there is no reason to expect that they will – our producers will have to conform to the standards of other countries if we wish to sell into their markets. Taking back control from the EU will simply mean submitting to the authority of others jurisdictions, whether that’s the US, Canada, India or wherever. And to sell into the EU we would still have to conform to the single market’s food regulations, even if we are out of it.
Yes, there are costs from regulation. It’s onerous to perform tests, to fill in paperwork, print labels and all the rest. But there are vast economic benefits too.
It was 30 years ago this month that Margaret Thatcher made her speech in Bruges, seen by eurosceptics as the lighting of the torch of national resistance to Brussels. Yet earlier in 1988 the prime minister had made another speech on the urgency of completing the single market.
“There was a tendency in Europe to talk in lofty tones of European Union,” she said on the subject of regulatory harmonisation. “That may be good for the soul. But the body – Europe’s firms and organisations and the people who work in them – needs something more nourishing.”
Food for thought for Brexiteers today.