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Expert View

Farming and fishing could be next devolution fault-lines

by David Hannay | 11.04.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Whether to hold a second Scottish independence referendum and how to avoid re-introducing customs and movement of people controls on the Irish border aren’t the only devolution issues raised by Brexit. Those two issues are indeed salient ones and remain far from resolution, however firmly the UK government may have set its face against a second independence referendum ahead of Brexit taking effect and however many warm but vague assurances are given about the desirability of avoiding border controls in Ireland. But there are other devolution tensions too which will soon break the surface.

Not least of these will arise when the UK government introduces legislation, as it will have to do, to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and its Common Fisheries Policy. Both these areas of policy are devolved responsibilities over which the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have a considerable say. Up to now the interface between broad policy decisions taken collectively by the EU member states in Brussels and their subsequent implementation, with an increasing degree of autonomy for the devolved administrations (as well as for England ), has not given rise to serious problems. But will that continue to be the case once the central decision-making function reverts to the UK government and to the Westminster Parliament? Pretty unlikely, one suspects.

For one thing, there could be sharp disagreements over which of the powers being repatriated from Brussels should be exercised centrally and which should be devolved. And given the quite different patterns of agriculture and fishing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in England, there are likely to be disagreements too over what sort of policies to apply. What’s more, should it prove impossible to retain the full tariff-free and non tariff-free access to the rest of the EU which has seen considerable expansion of exports of beef, lamb and fish from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in recent years, you will have a witches’ brew of problems.

And then there are the free trade agreements which the government has said it intends to negotiate post-Brexit with a whole range of countries whose exports into the UK, as part of the EU, currently pay tariffs. Such agreements will no doubt be negotiated by the British government on behalf of the whole of the UK. They could well bring benefits to the economy as a whole and to consumers. But they could also bring costs for farmers and fishermen in the form of reduced protection – think only of tariff free access for highly competitive New Zealand lamb or Argentinian beef. How will those benefits and costs be integrated into an overall UK approach and how are the costs to be mitigated?

There is precious little sign yet of the government having given any thought to these tricky issues. The minister responsible, Andrea Leadsom, has been notably absent from the public debate since taking office last July. Giving some indication of the government’s plans for these important sectors of the economy is long overdue. When it does come, it is sure to give rise to plenty of tensions between London and the devolved administrations.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon