SCOTLAND’S iconic flagship food and drink sector is “swimming against the tide” as the UK formally leaves the EU customs union, it is claimed.
That change plunged Scots exporters into major turmoil, costing seafood firms alone an estimated £1 million a day and leaving premium cargo to spoil as red-tape delays blocked transit to big-money markets in France, Spain and Italy.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows how hard key food and drink exports have been hit, with February’s milk and dairy sales plummeting by more than 96% year-on-year, chicken exports falling 79.5% and beef down almost 78%. Overall, there was near-41% slippage – with imports from Europe also down by 17%.
On May 1, serious concern for the future remains, with Westminster’s cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this week reporting that companies will collapse without urgent action to amend the eleventh-hour deal struck on Christmas Eve.
While UK exporters are subject to a stringent checks and paperwork system, the UK has delayed the introduction of inspections on EU food imports. Calling for the paperwork burden to go digital and the creation of new freight hubs, committee chair Neil Parish said that imbalance is creating “serious long-term repercussions for our producers”.
John Davidson of industry body Scotland Food and Drink told The National the committee’s report is “hugely significant”, saying: “Four months on from the UK officially leaving the EU and the majority of red meat, seafood and other food and drink exporters, are still finding doing business with their European customers far more difficult than they did before the New Year. Trade was down across the board in January and February, and it is absolutely crucial that we now work to improve the situation quickly with practical solutions.”
Problems in January were so grave that haulier DFDS closed its Larkhall depot for 10 days. It said business has now “normalised” but customers must confirm bookings earlier and customs clearance in France takes longer.
Nicole Seroff of DFDS told The National: “The new requirements do not in general foster easy trade from Scotland to the EU. A lot of the teething troubles have been fixed. The biggest is issue is still the cost and complexity created by the processes which are harmful to trade.”
Despite the promises made to fishermen about increased quotas by Leave campaigners before the Brexit referendum, on Thursday it emerged that the UK and Norway had failed to reach a fishing deal for this year – barring UK vessels from cod-rich Norwegian waters.
The news comes after weeks of talks and will allow big Scots boats to haul more mackerel, but will also mean the Arctic cod sold in UK chip shops will have to be imported from Norwegian operators who can enter this market tariff-free.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had “put forward a fair offer on access to UK waters and the exchange of fishing quotas” with Norway, but “concluded that our positions remain too far apart to reach an agreement this year.”
In Troon, SB Fish owner Santi Buesa SB Fish owner Santi Buesa told The National the sector faces “a slow death”, with food firms “swimming against the tide”.
BUESA, who has been in business for 30 years, has had to tie up five boats and offer another four for sale as self-employed crews, hit by lower incomes, are leaving the industry.
He said the end of freedom of movement has left him struggling to fill factory jobs and European buyers are now “not taking a chance” on much Scottish produce as longer delivery times mean they’re “scared of missing the market”.
He added: “Higher costs are here to stay. We are having a huge problem finding jobs filled – it’s not only our industry but other industries are having difficulties in finding a manual workforce.
“This is not Covid-related, this is Brexit. It’s not complicated, we have shut off our own market. We need to get back into the Common Market.
“I think the only way has got to be independence now to save our fishing industry.”
However, Davidson said a veterinary deal, similar to that in place for with other non-EU countries like Switzerland, would “alleviate the unworkable and hugely damaging non-tariff barriers” producers face: “A veterinary deal is a common-sense approach, which is perfectly doable under the UK/EU Brexit agreement, and would make an exponential difference to Scottish food and drink exporters.”
While problems trading with the bloc remain, Westminster has its sights set on following its “global Britain” strategy, which seeks new deals in other territories. An agreement with Japan came last year and UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss recently held two-day talks with Australia’s Dan Trehan that could give Aussie beef and lamb producers far greater access to the UK market.
Sign-off is expected in June.