FOUR MONTHS after the UK severed its final links with the EU, there is now a real sense, not least in agriculture, that they are on very different tracks.

What was supposed to be a friendly divorce has descended into acrimony on both sides. This week the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, made clear that the EU was ready to 'show its teeth' if the UK seeks to alter what it signed up to in the divorce deal.

In the UK, Boris Johnson is under growing pressure. This is over allegations about how he paid for expensive wallpaper and whether he was willing to see dead bodies piling up to avoid another lock down. He has told ministers to cling hard to success stories. These are the vaccination programme and Brexit.

When it comes to agricultural policy, the EU is pressing ahead without even a glance back to the days of 28 member states. It may well be that we are better off away from some of the policies being pursued. There is a new focus on animal welfare, driven by pressure from the European parliament and activist groups. This is driving a new debate on a blanket ban on all cage systems on farms and tighter rules on animal transport.

The problem remains that the EU is better at introducing new rules than it is at enforcing regulations already in place. This has long been the case with animal transport. There is also new pressure for the EU to link CAP payments to compliance with a wide range of social welfare standards.

It is this grafting on of new regulations that tempted many farmers to vote leave in 2016. However the big question now is whether the UK will be any different when it comes to agricultural policy. This is largely down to how much independence will be allowed via devolution and this will be a bigger issue after the Holyrood elections. As things stand, the UK is on track to deliver similar swirls of red tape as the EU. Animal welfare is becoming a catch-all vote pleasing policy for the government, including a ban on livestock exports.

This has always been a powerful and emotive issue in the UK and many in the government believe Brexit has to be about going further and faster than the EU. We already know the government wants to be even greener than the EU in terms of carbon reduction, so for farmers escaping the EU seems for now to be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire.

What has been lost by leaving the EU is the power of the European farming lobby. Despite the UK farm unions remaining in COPA, the body that represents European farm lobby groups, they are there now with observer status rather than as the powerful members they once were. Relations are still good, but it cannot be long before the EU farming lobby is forced to make a stand over issues against the UK. This is likely to be over trade and access to the UK market, when the government begins implementing import rules against EU food later in the year. This is when that sense of being on very different tracks will become even more apparent. No matter how friendly and harmonious things may be now, the EU is about solidarity and protection of markets. The UK is now not only an outsider but a threat to that solidarity.

The real crunch will come not over agricultural policy, but over trade. The EU farm commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, recently told farm ministers that 2020, despite Covid, had been a positive year for EU agrifood trade. Exports were up by more than imports and the balance of trade gap remained healthy. He was bullish about trade agreements, insisting the Mercosur deal with South America was good and possible. He also claimed progress in trade discussions with other countries, including Australia and New Zealand that are also high on the UK's list for trade deals. His message underlines the reality that the EU is now a hugely powerful competitor in the same markets the UK wants to be in.

While the UK is anxious for the political oxygen of trade deals, the EU approach, Wojciechowski claimed, was to prioritise 'substance over speed'. That is a luxury the scandal-hit Boris Johnson may not be able to afford if he wants to get off the ropes after local and Scottish elections.