Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met at a French restaurant in Luxembourg with European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker. The pair feasted on cheese, salmon, and snails while discussing a deal over Brexit, the contentious and ever-evolving British plan to leave the E.U. next month.
Even as Johnson and other British politicians fight over when, how, and even whether to leave, and EU leaders are caught somewhere between onlookers to and participants in the process, many politicians and pundits both inside and outside Britain warn Brexit may leave an empty feeling in the stomachs of Britons and others in the bloc who count on British food purchases.
Indeed, Brexit’s worst-case scenario involves both food shortages and public disorder. (“Order!“) Many experts predict a post-Brexit spike in food prices. Some “academics stress that these price jumps will make it difficult for some Brits to reliably access affordable, nutritious food,” Quartz reported last month. Others appear to be unconvinced Britain can feed itself, citing a history of “U.K. manufacturing incompetence” around food. And while Britain will continue to welcome E.U. food imports, experts predict the border crossing into France could become a lethal bottleneck for many perishable British farm goods and other foods bound for the E.U.
Though it’s impossible to know, some of these fears may be overblown. For example, The Guardian fished for British food preppers last week. It’s unclear if they found any, but Reuters reported this week that Britons aren’t stockpiling food in advance of Brexit.
Even if some Brexit fears are exaggerated, a closer look at many of the concerns raised over Britain’s exit from the E.U. suggests those specters amount to little more than tired fears over competition and equally shopworn calls for protectionism.
“It was very important and is very important that the U.K. in any deal wouldn’t be able to go off and do their own trade deals with other countries,” said Joe Healy, head of the Irish Farmers’ Association, in remarks reported this week by the Irish Times. Healy, the Times reports, wants any Brexit or post-Brexit deal to maintain “[t]he value of the U.K. food market” to Irish farmers and to disregard “the U.K. government’s ‘ability or desire’ to see food prices slashed.”
Lisa Chambers, an Irish politician, similarly worries what will happen to Irish beef farmers if they have to compete for British food dollars.
“If this comes to pass and Irish beef is forced to compete in the U.K. market against cheaper imports from other countries, thousands of jobs will be lost,” Chambers says.
The availability of abundant and cheaper food options may be why British leaders don’t fear food shortages. If they do harbor such fears, they’re not letting on yet—at least not publicly.
During a visit to Britain earlier this month by Vice President Mike Pence, for example, Prime Minister Johnson—doing a stripped-down Hugh Grant impersonation—told the press that chlorine-washed American chicken will remain unwelcome in British supermarkets even after Brexit.
When it comes to food, the promise of the E.U. was that it would reduce regulations and barriers to trade, benefiting consumers and producers throughout the bloc. The EU.’.s common currency (which Britain never adopted) and the end of tedious border checkpoints between member countries certainly helped in that regard. But the E.U. has also embraced some of the world’s strictest food regulations and—even Brexit opponents admit—some of its worst agricultural subsidies.
In a 2017 column, I reported on a study by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a think thank, that argued Brexit presented an “unprecedented opportunity” for Britain “to examine its agricultural and trade policies and adopt a more liberal approach which will ultimately result in a more productive agricultural sector and lower food prices for consumers.”
That’s still possible. But it may be unlikely.
“The evidence is on the side of the free-traders, but they should not assume that the people of Britain understand that such openness will give them more choice and make the country better off,” wrote British journalist Oliver Wiseman in a piece for Reason last month that lays bare the uncertainties that surround Brexit, particularly around trade.
If post-Brexit Britain emerges as a beacon of free trade and prosperity, then, in the words of the brilliant, crack-smoking British TV character Super Hans, portrayed by actor Matt King on the fun comedy Peep Show, then I’m moreish on Brexit. But the proof, to paraphrase, shall be in the pudding.
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