Leaving the EU was complicated enough – but then came Covid, Zoom meetings, and the problem of peperoni pizzas. UK Flour Millers director general Alex Waugh looks back on life at the tumultuous front line of Brexit negotiations ... It was never going to be easy
The votes were counted on June 23, 2016 and David Dimbleby announced, “We’re out!”, the shock of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was quickly replaced by the realisation that everything was about to change.
But how? And more importantly, what would the UK’s new status mean for the flour milling industry?
As director general of what was then nabim, Alex Waugh would be leading the team which would be going into bat for the interests of the organisation’s members in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Little did he know what lay ahead, and how the already tortuous process of back-and-forth would be further complicated by global events that no-one could foresee or control.
Looking back on the original referendum Alex recalls: “There was a vote to leave but nobody actually knew what that meant, or indeed what our UK objectives were – and arguably it was that lack of clarity which bedevilled the UK’s negotiating position from the start.
“However as far as we were concerned, our aims were clear: firstly, access to high quality, tariff free wheat from the European Union and around the world to ensure the same diversity of supply for millers.
“Secondly, the ability to sell flour and products made for flour without tariffs into the European Union.”
The minutiae of the negotiations would fill a book in themselves. But in practical terms, the early days involved a series of face-to-face meetings between nabim, the so-called Brexit Arable Group, and a succession of junior ministers and civil servants.
“Initially we would hold round table meetings on a monthly basis, which on the government side would be attended by different officials – people from revenue and customs, the Treasury and so on,” Alex says.
“In theory you can compare it to trying to get from London to Glasgow. You’re originally planning to go up the M6, but then there would be roadworks so you’d have to find another route. Then those routes would be blocked and you’d be diverted elsewhere.
“There were times when we ended up travelling on some very minor roads indeed!”
In December 2019, MPs finally voted for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. But any hopes that this would somehow simplify things were dashed just weeks later when Covid-19 sent the world into lockdown.
“There's no doubt that Covid did knock the Brexit negotiations by some months,” Alex says.
“In practical terms, we had to switch from face-to-face meetings to online meetings – and at first people weren't that enthusiastic about it. I'd be able to see people and talk to them and have a little slides, but it wasn’t the same as being in a meeting room.
“But people adapted quickly to using Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, or various other channels, and we were fortunate that within the association we already had a video-conferencing system already installed and ready to go, so we could do it right.”
Despite the difficulties of dodgy broadband, the mute button and other technical issues associated with remote meetings, Alex says an unexpected yet welcome consequence of lockdown was the raising of flour’s profile.
“When there were shortages of retail flour early on, it brought home the fact that flour is a central part of the food chain – and when supplies are interrupted people really notice. Especially as, during the first lockdown especially, there was a huge demand due to the popularity of home baking.
“So in that respect it highlighted the importance of getting things sorted post-Brexit.”
A year on from the first lockdown, and three months after the UK officially left the EU, the negotiations rumble on – although according to Alex, the main sticking point now is not tariffs but paperwork.
“There are some quite big regulatory hurdles to cope with now. And some are more bizarre than others: for instance if you’re trying to export peperoni pizza in Europe you have to have a vet inspect and sign it off beforehand.
“But it's like in any big project. You just have to be clear about what your objectives are before you start. I just hope we've done a reasonable job in keeping members informed of the twists and turns without bothering them with all the detail.
“Our members have certainly been really good in sticking with it and saying, ‘Okay, fine. You can keep us informed. Tell us what's going on but get on with it’.”