TRADE NOT aid is the familiar cry of advocates of fair trade and as Brexit gets closer, that is a claim Scottish farmers will need to recognise.

While there is a big focus on sorting out the support system that will replace the CAP, a meaningful trade deal remains the long term answer if agriculture is to have a sustainable future outside the EU.

The scale of this challenge cannot be under-estimated. The government, thanks to Boris Johnson, has made securing it all the more difficult by choosing to set December as the absolute deadline for a deal. It believes this will focus minds in Brussels, but if the past three years have taught us anything, it is that Brussels is not impressed by UK deadlines.

Having set these, London has already blinked three times. If a deal is in the offing but not over the line it will do so again come the end of the year. That is the difference between political dogma and economic realism – and as a pragmatic, if bombastic, politician, Johnson knows that.

The government is keen to stress what a great economic power the UK can be after Brexit. This suits its agenda, but in reality the UK will be a small player in a world of increasingly big trading blocs. As the UK is leaving one of the big global trading blocs, others are seeking alliances to improve their economic muscle.

Even the Trump administration sees the logic of this, walking away from its deal with Canada and Mexico only to put something similar back in place. This is not about politics or whether Brexit is a good or bad idea. Global trade is now around big blocs and it will be an experiment for the UK to see if it can establish a new model by ignoring this trend.

When it comes to agriculture, food and drink, the statistics for the EU are impressive. Last week it published figures confirming again that the EU is the world's biggest agri trader. The data continued a trend of year-on-year growth with exports rising significantly more than imports. In October a new record balance of trade gap – the difference between exports and imports – was achieved at €4 billion.

This is healthy by any standards and it underlines two key issues. The first is that this export performance is in part down to an aggressive trade strategy by the Juncker-led Commission that ended in December. This saw the then farm commissioner, now trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, leading lots of successful global trade delegations. The EU has focussed on forging free trade agreements, including one of the world's biggest with Japan.

The other issue this raises is why it is so important to get a sound trade deal with the EU-27. Given its export successes and scale, this is not just about continuing to access the EU market, but how the UK can compete in other markets against a big trading bloc selling the same products, produced under similar conditions.

This will not affect niche products, such as Scotch whisky, but that is a narrow focus to secure agricultural benefits. In a recent interview Hogan suggested that if the UK wanted a trade deal in 2020 it would demand horse trading and the playing off of one sector against another. The example he suggested was EU-27 access to UK fishing waters in return for a deal on financial services. This would be bizarre, but it demonstrates the disconnect between politics and economics.

On the issue of support, the dynamic of the UK debate on devolution has changed, with the return of an executive in Northern Ireland. This will give Scotland a new ally in negotiations with Westminster and comments from the new Ulster minister are interesting. He is a farmer and determined devolution will deliver, making clear that he is not impressed with the English solution to an English problem coming from Defra.

Edwin Poots, the new Ulster minister, was a former environment minister, but he is determined agriculture will drive decisions on the post-Brexit support model and that green benefits will come from that, rather than from rewarding farmers for environmental delivery alone.

Whether he can deliver is open to question. But the pro-Brexit minister is adamant the promises to farmers in 2016 of a better outcome must be delivered – and that the devolved administrations of the UK have the right to ignore what Defra does for England.