By Casey Wooten
June 21 — The clock is ticking down to June 23, when Britons vote on whether their country should remain in the European Union.
The decision could have a major impact on trade policy between the U.K. and U.S., but in Washington, agricultural policy makers have been quiet on the issue, commonly known as Brexit. Some analysts, however, say the relatively small agricultural trade with Britain belies a big impact.
Influential agriculture policy groups such as the National Farmer's Union and the Farm Bureau haven't weighed in on the issue publicly, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) declined to comment on how a Brexit would impact crop and livestock trade with Britain.
The administration isn't wringing its hands about a Brexit's impact on U.S. agriculture either.
“I think there are far more comprehensive issues relating to the EU and the U.K.'s role in the EU in that vote, and obviously the people are going to make a decision that they think is in their best interest,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters June 16.
Pushing Brexit aside, Vilsack said he is more concerned with completing the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement currently being negotiated between Europe and the U.S.
Britain leaving the EU isn't going to derail U.S. trade priorities for Europe, like the food safety and simultaneous buy-and-sell (SBS) issues related to commodities futures trading, he said.
“I'm focused, frankly, in terms of TTIP, not so much on that decision but on the decisions that the negotiations are taking place in terms of geographic limitations, in terms of biotechnology, in terms of beef access, and some of the other SBS issues, pathogen reduction issues we've been talking about all the time,” Vilsack said.
Beyond agricultural trade, leaving the EU would likely require Britain to strike new trade deals with the U.S., but Britons might have to wait, President Barack Obama said.
“Maybe some point down the line, there might be a U.K.-U.S. trade agreement, but it's not going to happen anytime soon because our focus in negotiating is with the big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done, and U.K. is going to be in the back of the queue,” Obama said during an April 22 press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Some analysts agree that a Brexit wouldn't derail TTIP negotiations. (See previous story, 06/21/16).
Indeed, agricultural trade between the U.S. and U.K. is small compared to total U.S. agricultural exports, but it makes up a significant percentage of sales to the EU.
“Agriculture trade with Britain shouldn't be seen as some insignificant gnat,” James P. Moore Jr., managing director of the Business, Society and Public Policy Initiative at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, told Bloomberg BNA.
In 2012, the U.K.—a net importer of food—bought $2.4 billion in U.S. agriculture, fish and forestry products, according to a report by the Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service. That's compared to $8.1 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to major EU members as a whole. Most U.S. agricultural exports to Britain and the EU are bulk commodities, while the U.S. imports largely high-value, consumer-oriented agricultural products, the USDA said.
Agriculture, Moore said, is a cornerstone of the European Union, and Britain exiting would leave a policy vacuum that may be difficult to fill.
“Where agriculture is concerned, it was very much the anchor in so many ways to the creation of the European Union,” Moore said. “The Common Agricultural Policy is essentially the guide post of how you put together a cross-border economy that really speaks to issues like subsidies.”
Britain's exit would also leave the group's Common Agricultural Policy, a multistate system that creates standards for crop subsidies as well as environmental and food safety regulations.
The Common Agricultural Policy itself is a factor in the Brexit debate. Many U.K. farmers scoff at the rules imposed by EU regulators, such as a possible ban on the use of the herbicide glyphosate.
“What's gotten the farmers a bit angry is that, for the past few years, there have been efforts in Brussels to limit subsidies and get involved in regulations dealing with the environment,” Moore said.
Were the U.K. to drop out of the multistate agricultural system, it would leave U.S. regulators and trade officials looking toward the U.K. government for an indication of what new regulatory structure would emerge, and analysts in the U.S. have yet to predict what that would take, Moore said.
“There is such a view of the unknown that we are literally writing a brand new chapter in economic and political history, and it's going to create just a mess in regard to how we put back some pieces of the puzzle,” Moore said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at email@example.com
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