Strange case of Melton Mowbray pork pies. Briefing for PM.

by Michael Emerson | 28.08.2019

The Melton Mowbray pork pie affair is more than one small inaccuracy in the prime minister’s many off-the-cuff statements. His complaint about how the US doesn’t allow imports of pork pies shows he has not understood even the ABC of the hugely important non-tariff chapter to the trade negotiations he wants to have with both the EU and US. 

Processed meat products are among the most strictly regulated products in international trade. There is no mutual recognition of each other’s standards in the world at large for such products. Within the EU and the European Economic Area there are common regulations, which is why the pork pies could in principle be exported to Iceland. 

One of the EU’s most advanced trade deals is with Canada. But the two parties could still not agree to mutual recognition of product regulations. All they could agree is for certification bodies in an exporting country to be entrusted to certify conformity with the standards of the importing country. This does reduce the costs of compliance, but doesn’t allow pork pies made under EU standards to be sent to Canada.

Of course, the UK might try for something more extensive with America. We know that the US would seek to get the UK to accept US standards for the famous chlorinated chickens and genetically modified products. Is the prime minister willing to accept these, and would the UK then reasonably require symmetrical reciprocity, with the US to accept UK standards? If not, this would mean official vassal status. If it tried, there is not a cat in hell’s chance that the US would agree – it prefers hegemonic asymmetry.

For industrial products, some of which featured in the prime minister’s pork pie statement, there are around 25,000 technical standards. The EU has adopted these in a mix of standards written by European Organisations (such as CEN and CENELEC, which are pan-European, not EU only) and those worked out by the UN-affiliated International Standards Organisation (ISO). The EU and ISO work closely together. Many countries outside Europe adopt ISO standards, but not the US which does its own thing. 

The theoretical idea of mutual recognition between the UK and US over these industrial standards poses the prior question what standards the UK will be using. It will start by keeping all the 25,000 EU/ISO standards. Indeed it would be absurd to imagine the UK going about inventing its own different standards, after decades during which it played a major and much respected role in defining EU and ISO standards. 

If the UK were willing to accept US standards for its imports from the US, what would it expect the US to accept in return? If the UK made no reciprocal request, it again would be the vassal state. 

But if the UK kept to EU/ISO standards and asked the US to accept these, the US in agreeing would be making a huge concession to the EU. The only conceivable scenario for this to happen would be if renewed EU-US free trade negotiations were to aim at this first. So the UK’s possible deal would be subordinated to one done by the EU and US, which is not currently on the Trump agenda, to say the least.

These complex and highly technical matters are not normally featuring in the speeches of heads of state and government. They tend to prefer more lofty matters of state. But if Boris Johnson wants to talk about it, he had better get his arguments soundly based. His pork pie statement reveals that he has not yet been briefed, or that he got too bored to read what his officials have given him.