Ministers refusing to open talks to solve Brexit exports crisis to make EU feel ‘pain’, industry leader says

'That is the same mentality of brinksmanship and of last minute negotiation that failed spectacularly at the end of last year'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 04 February 2021 14:53
Food & Drink chief says government refusing to open talks to solve Brexit exporting crisis

Ministers are refusing to open talks to solve the exporting crisis caused by Brexit until the EU feels “some of the pain”, an industry leader says.

The delayed introduction of UK border controls in April is “another potential car crash”, the head of Scottish Food and Drink warned – telling MPs: “The clock is ticking.”

But, James Withers added: “The mood music I pick up from government officials is that there is a reluctance to engage with the EU until April.

“In other words, that they need to feel some of the pain that we are feeling before it will come to the table.

“I'm massively worried about that – that is the same mentality of brinksmanship and of last minute negotiation that failed spectacularly at the end of last year.”

Mr Withers urged the government to “learn from that, see what is coming” and start a dialogue now to find “practical solutions”.

The criticism came as fish exporters echoed criticism of blunders made in the rushed Christmas Eve trade agreement, in evidence to the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.

Deliveries have been hit by the blizzard of new red tape, with requirements for health checks and customs documents – and ban on shellfish trade is “indefinite”, the EU is warning.

Jimmy Buchan, the chief executive of Scottish Seafood Association, said he could not understand why the government had agreed rules that were “crippling” its businesses.

And Elaine Whyte, of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association said EU markets built up over 40 years were being lost to rivals in Norway and Ireland.

Mr Withers also poured scorn on government claims that the absence of the feared huge queues at Channel ports meant disaster had been averted.

Around two-thirds of lorries heading to the Continent were empty – “carrying fresh air” only.

“That is not a measure of success, that is a measure of the scale of failure that we have got just now,” he told the MPs.

Pre-Christmas “pleas" to the government for a grace period before the hurdles of post-Brexit trading rules were inflicted “fell on deaf ears”.

“There have been some catastrophic decisions taken to create enormous non-tariff barriers,” Mr Withers told the committee.

“We have ended up with a trading regime that has become complex, costly, slow, prone to break down at its best,” he added.

“At worst, the door to the EU market has been closed altogether for some food exporters across Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.

“And, unfortunately, it's a very predictable outcome of trying to test the multibillion-pound new trading system in real time in the midst of a pandemic.”

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