TORY ministers are split over plans to cut tariffs on US agricultural imports to boost progress on a free trade agreement with America.
Tensions are rising after it emerged International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is looking at a “big concession package” to negotiators from the US over the coming months to cut the cost of certain agricultural imports, according to government officials. But the plans have triggered internal opposition from Environment Secretary George Eustice who has raised concerns such a step could undercut UK farmers, according to the Financial Times.
Concerns about such tariff cuts are also understood to have been raised by officials at the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), who said it could be “the thin end of the wedge” leading to further concessions on animal welfare standards
One source from the agriculture industry said it would “antagonistic, arrogant and damaging” for the UK Government not to take into account consumer welfare in respect of any trade deal with the US.
Last week, the US and Britain launched formal negotiations on a free trade agreement, vowing to work quickly to seal a deal that could counter the massive drag of the coronavirus pandemic on trade flows and the two allies’ economies.
Agriculture has long been expected to be among the thorniest issues in the talks, given strong British opposition to US genetically modified crops and antibacterial treatments for poultry.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to drive a “hard bargain” and Ms Truss has said that Britain would not diminish its food safety standards.
The talks, to be conducted virtually, will involve over 300 US and UK staff and officials in nearly 30 negotiating groups.
A Whitehall official told the newspaper: “George Eustice and Defra wanted a level playing field on animal welfare.
“Defra has argued that you cant lower tariffs for US agriculture when theyre produced at a much lower cost due to their welfare standards.”
Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, said a trade deal could be done with the Trump administration if there was a “big offer” on agriculture.
But he warned concessions “might prove controversial with British farmers and consumer”.
He said: “The US has long seen its beef, chicken and pork shut out of European markets because of high tariffs and restrictive regulations.
“If the UK is able to table an offer that deals with all of these concerns, then a trade deal can be done.”
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said little publicly about the UK trade talks since publishing a sweeping set of objectives more than a year ago that sought full access for US agriculture products and reduced tariffs for US.
The Trump administration is looking to shift supply chains back to the US and away from China, where the coronavirus originated, and is pushing a “Buy American” campaign for medical and other supplies.
Trade in goods between the US and UK was valued at $27.1 billion in 2018, with the two sides roughly in balance, while the services trade topped $134.8 billion.
Britain is the seventh-largest US goods trading partner, after South Korea, according to the US Census Bureau.
Further rounds will take place approximately every six weeks and will be carried out remotely until it is safe to travel.