The government will apply tariffs to food imports to protect British farmers in a no-deal scenario, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has confirmed.
And, contrary to claims by hard Brexiters, he warned that delays were likely in Calais because of mandatory EU checks on food imports on the French side of the channel.
The tariff regime Britain would like to apply in the event of no deal will be revealed in the “next few days”.
He told the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference in Birmingham that reports that Britain would operate a zero tariff regime in order to secure frictionless trade in a no-deal scenario were “not accurate”.
“One thing I can reassure you it will not be the case that we will have zero rate tariffs on products, there will be protections for sensitive sections of agriculture and food production,” Gove said.
He later hinted that the tariffs would apply to beef and “particularly” lamb, citing livestock farmers as the most vulnerable in a no-deal scenario. He refused to reassure farmers who pressed him about protection for cereal farmers, suggesting zero tariffs were a possibility in some areas.
Urging farmers to petition their MPs to vote for Theresa May’s deal, he said the clear priority was to secure a deal.
“The tariffs that will be announced in the event of no deal are not our preferred policy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be taken as the be all and end all of UK policy, absolutely not.”
Gove promised British food standards will not be lowered “in pursuit of trade deals” and vowed to minimise the risk that food producers will be left at “competitive disadvantage” in the face of cheaper tariff-free imports that are below EU standards.
In a keynote speech to the NFU, Gove also warned that British farmers could be locked out of the EU from 30 March in the event of no deal and that checks at Calais on food exports would “fur up” the arteries of trade, contrary to claims by the French port that there would not be delays.
“We can expect, at least in the short term, that those delays in Calais will impede the loading of ferries, constricting supply routes back into Britain and furring up the arteries of commerce on which we all rely,” said Gove.
The NFU recently warned that health and safety audits required on individual food processing plans required by the EU could take up to six months to complete, effectively locking British farming exporters out of the bloc.
On Tuesday Gove confirmed this by pointing out the EU had not yet classified the UK as a “third country”, which will only happen after health and safety audits are complete.
“The EU still have not listed the UK as a full third country … As I speak there is no absolute guarantee we will continue to be able to export to the EU,” he told farmers.
Gove also said that the dangers of no deal would not be removed if, in future, a trade deal was sealed between the UK and the EU.
Once tariffs are imposed by the EU on British exports “it will be difficult to re-establish that market access even if tariffs reduced in the future”.
Contrary to claims by Calais authorities, Gove said there will be delays at the port because of mandatory sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on any food or animal products exported to the bloc from Britain.
“Tariffs are not the only problem we would face. All products of animal origin entering the EU would face SPS checks.
“The EU’s current position is that 100% of imports would need to be checked. In order to be checked, every import would need to go through a border inspection post,” said Gove.
The reference to EU law comes weeks after Brexiters seized on claims by Calais chiefs that there would be no delays at the port.
It is understood the local politicians have written to the French government asking for derogation from EU law, but it is not clear whether the EU would allow any opt out at the port.
Gove said: “A huge proportion of our food exports to the EU currently go through Calais. As I speak there are no Border Inspection Posts [BIP] at Calais. None. The French authorities promise to invest in BIP capacity but with just six weeks to go we face considerable uncertainty over future arrangements.
“The requirement for checks will inevitably slow the processing of exports, and for every lorry that is delayed at Calais there is a knock-on effect for other haulage and the rapid turn-around of roll-on roll-off ferries.”