IT IS good news that the UK economy and exports to the EU recovered in February. However like all statistics these come with a but, in the shape of the recovery being from a low point. This is why percentages must be viewed with scepticism, particularly when used by politicians.

The bottom line is that the UK economy, not surprisingly, is still far below its pre-Covid performance. On the exports the same applies, with exports to the EU still well below the same month last year. There is also evidence that the recovery is not across all sectors, with reports that the demand for veterinary certification remains a major issue in food and agriculture.

In the discussions over the Northern Ireland protocol, which has made it all but impossible to move livestock and seed potatoes between Scotland and Ulster, the EU has again suggested parallel veterinary and plant health standards would get around the problems. This would see the entire UK, and not just Northern Ireland, operating to EU standards in agriculture.

This is easy now, since the UK fully met EU rules as a member state. This would solve many of the problems and reduce the need for certification, but it is an idea that will be resisted by the government. It believes it would restrict independence to diverge from EU rules, but more importantly it would go against the core principle that sovereignty must top market access. That means that while this would be the simple solution to the many problems Brexit has created it is unlikely to work. The problem then is that the Brussels mindset is that this is the obvious and logical solution, and it does not see an acceptable Plan B.

If percentages are the basis of spin around the economy, the international trade minister Liz Truss excels at talking up trade deals. She does so without delivering any that give exporters more, or even the same, as they had when the UK was part of EU free trade arrangements. This week saw claims that a deal with New Zealand is ready to be signed. There was even a suggestion that it was a toss up as to whether this or a deal with Australia would be first over the line.

The spin was not about prospects for UK businesses to export, but about promises of cheaper wine and meat for UK consumers. This is a prospect that must set alarm bells ringing in agriculture, if it turns out to be more than just yet more spin. Kiwi imports would be a direct threat to lamb producers in particular, but more fundamentally they could slam the door on prospects of normal trade in lamb with the EU.

There is no question that the UK joining the then EEC in 1973 was devastating for New Zealand agriculture, which had effectively been built around supplying the UK market. This forced it to look towards new markets in Asia and as those are now the world's prime markets that proved a good strategic outcome for NZ. On that basis it has limited interest in re-opening markets half a world away, but Kiwis are not people to turn down an open goal opportunity. It is also negotiating with the EU, as is Australia, to secure a trade deal with Brussels and with a population of close to 500 million, that is economically more attractive than trying to recreate the trading conditions of the 1950s and 1960s with the UK.

Politics apart, the bottom line remains that despite the distance disadvantage, both New Zealand and Australia are low cost meat producers. If they became a bigger force in the UK market it could only be at a price disadvantage to farmers here. There is the added problem that the EU has always been paranoid about the UK being used as a back door way to get New Zealand lamb into Europe. A trade deal would force that up the agenda. That could be to the disadvantage of the hoped for smooth maintenance of the existing export trade in lamb from the UK to Europe.

If this moves from spin closer to reality it would be a hard trade deal to block. The Trade and Agriculture Commission would struggle to produce a convincing case against southern hemisphere standards, and politically trying to stop consumers getting cheaper wine and meat would be trying to push water up a very steep hill.