Trading stakes remain high as Brexit plays out its final twisting festive chapter

After a saga lasting four years, it’s not hard to have sympathy with many across the political divide and general public alike that have suffered clear fatigue from observing the process of Brexit play out before us highly unpredictable fashion – and in just a couple of weeks it’s supposed to be over.

This is of particular concern in trade terms for the food and drink sector, as much as any sphere of industry, as we were promised according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his own words, that we had ‘an oven ready deal’ that would help propel Great Britain back on to the world stage with renewed vigour. However, the reality is somewhat different in that said deal, didn’t actually include the sticky issue of just how we might trade with our nearest neighbours – which accounts for over 40% of UK exports.

Confectionery, snacks and bakery ranges are of course all part of that equation, and as yet, we simply don’t know the outcome of what we’re supposed to be preparing for. Major British retailer Tesco shed some light on the matter last week assessing that a ‘no deal’ scenario would add an average of 5% to the cost of the average supermarket shop (including the many sweet treats that we all take largely for granted) – amounting to a significant amount above the natural rate of price inflation at a time when recession looms large on the horizon.

It’s an issue the UK’s Food and Drink Federation has revisited many times over the past few years, and it has consistently looked to the government to ensure that strong trading relations are maintained with our closest trading allies in Europe, but so often, the process has become entangled with party politics that has affected the negotiations considerably. Perhaps it was always destined to be that way, given how contentious the issue remains to this day.

After missing what was billed as the ‘final deadline’ for any 11th hour deal, Prime Minister Johnson, not wishing to either be seen as the first leader since Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century to contemplate effectively cancelling Christmas celebrations in being under pressure to restrict public movement and festive family celebrations amid the covid-19 pandemic, or be seen to have failed to secure a trade deal that he has so long touted, will likely breathe a sigh of relief that it seems today, a festive glimmer of hope has emerged.

Against expectation on both sides, the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, this morning said there was a ‘very narrow path’ that an agreement may now be possible, as it is being reported that the UK may be willing to budge on allowing the so-called level playing field – essentially allowing the UK access to the valuable single market for the EU (without any new tariffs being introduced on British goods), in exchange for a guaranteed means of ensuring that standards of welfare, general business practices and environmental protections remain in tandem with Europe, are put in place.

The importance of this cannot be overstated, mattering hugely to the entire manufacturing sector and wider economy in terms of hopefully securing hard fought established conditions for many spheres of industry that have been created over the past four decades. We’re likely to know within the next few days if this most drawn out of experiences is in fact going to play out in a manner that might just be acceptable on both sides in this most divisive of episodes that will have an impact for generations.

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