Britain could “destroy” Irish beef farmers, said Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2018. Three years on, how is this claim working out?

How it started, how it’s going

In August 2018, as the UK struggled to reconcile Brexit ideology with the practicalities of leaving the European Union, there was no shortage of gun-ho, nationalistic language.

In one intervention, Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that Britain could “destroy” Irish farming. Consequently, it was wrong, he suggested, to believe that the 27 EU states, with their much larger integrated market, would be the more powerful side in UK-EU trade talks:

“What about Ireland? Ireland sells us over £800 million in beef per year. If we put tariffs on that, the Irish farming industry would be destroyed. Do you really think the European Union would sacrifice the interests of the Irish economy?”

How it’s going: the facts speak a thousand words  

Three years on, with the UK having left the EU and the transitional period also having come to a close, how is this bullish claim standing up against the reality of Brexit?

Time, alas, has not been good to this jingoistic threat.  

As the British agricultural and food sector struggles with massive Brexit-related issues such as the HGV driver shortage, factories and abattoirs unable to find staff, and a shortage of CO2 (used in the meat processing industry to improve the shelf life of products), Irish beef producers are reaping a Brexit-divided as desperate retailers search out new suppliers.

The Irish Farmers Journal have reported that British supermarkets are signing new contracts with Irish beef suppliers, as the domestic industry is unable to meet demand.

Beef is a market that is in decline in many countries, as environmentally conscious consumers turn to more climate-friendly products and plant-based alternatives.

However, there is little sign Brexit is “destroying” the Irish beef sector.  

As we discussed on Brexit Spotlight last week, exports from the Republic of Ireland to Great Britain (so, excluding Northern Ireland) rose 20% in the first six months of 2021 – while the country’s imports from Britain fell some 32% across the same period. The Irish agricultural trade (food and animals) with Great Britain has only fallen marginally – whereas British food and animal exports to Ireland have undergone a historic collapse:

 Jan-Jul 2020 (€million)Jan-Jul 2021 (€million)Rise/Fall
Republic of Ireland food and animal exports to Great Britain1,927  1,831  Fall 5%
Great Britain food and animal exports to Republic of Ireland1,675858Fall 49%
Source: Republic of Ireland Central Statistics Office

A key reason for this disparity is the UK government’s decision to delay many of the checks on imports from the EU – despite these now existing for UK exporters moving goods to the EU. Given the problems the UK economy is already experiencing, the government does not wish to deepen this further, worsening food shortages.

But this naturally helps Irish exporters, and hinders their British equivalents who are losing their share of the European and Irish market. Far from “destroying”, the Irish beef sector, the policy of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s own government is advantaging them compared to their British competitors. The Irish can also, of course, continue to export freely to the huge European market, while the UK faces significant non-tariff barriers.  

To be fair many economists have also often argued that Brexit was bad news for the Republic of Ireland’s economy. Due to the dense economic ties between the UK and Ireland, many believed that the introduction of significant barriers to trade were likely to have an adverse impact, mirroring the expected decline of the British economy.

However, so far at least, this is not the pattern.