BY NFUS political affairs manager Clare Slipper

Brexit: a word which, prior to Covid-19, often appeared next to the word 'crisis' in political headlines before the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified and came into force on January 31, 2020.

Little did we know on January 31 how quickly a real crisis was coming down the track – and the challenge that Covid-19 has presented all of society, business and government since that time is truly sobering.

The Withdrawal Agreement set out the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. January 31 also fired the starting gun on the negotiations on the future relationship (covering trading arrangements, regulations, and much more) which, as required by UK legislation, must be agreed and in place by December 31 2020.

This begs a very important question – what does Covid-19 mean for the Brexit negotiations?

The answer, according to the lead negotiators from the EU and the UK, is very little in terms of timelines: as you read this, the second round of trade negotiations (held by video conference) will be wrapping up. And last week, the UK Government’s Chief Negotiator David Frost maintained that it would not be in the interests of the UK to extend the negotiating period, Tweeting: “Transition ends on December 31 this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks, we will say no.”

However, this question is one which continues to uncomfortably bubble under the surface for businesses and representative organisations as they deal with the immediate challenges presented by Covid-19.

Since the outcome of the EU referendum in 2016, NFU Scotland has consistently argued that agriculture can flourish outside the EU, if enabled to operate under favourable trade, immigration and support policies.

Covid-19, and the myriad challenges it presents in terms of supply chains, markets, employment and logistics has served to sharpen the prominence of these three issues as key indicators of the sector’s ability to navigate economic challenges.

As governments begin their consideration of the restart and recovery phases from the Covid-19 crisis, those responsible for delivering Brexit must consider the practicalities for businesses attempting to operate both outside of the EU and in a new economic environment after Covid-19.

This is a concern because Covid-19 has shifted the economic goalposts for everyone. The free trade policy, which the UK Government is so enthusiastic to pursue outside the EU, may well be put on hold as international governments prioritise recovery from Covid-19.

Regulatory freedom, too, is perhaps less prominent a priority for an economy that will be in ‘reset’ rather than ‘growth’ mode. And what lessons might the major seasonal worker shortages projected for the upcoming fruit and veg harvest teach governments about the new immigration system?

This week, NFU Scotland discussed the subject with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for the EU Exit negotiations, Michael Russell MSP, and our work with UK Government ministers and officials, MPs and MSPs in relation to Brexit continues in earnest.

Front of centre of that continued engagement with our politicians is this: concluding one of the most ambitious trade negotiations ever known in modern times by 31 December was always going to be an immense effort. Achieving this in the midst of a global pandemic is nothing short of colossal."

(This blog was originally published at )