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26 January 2017

Molly Scott Cato: “The single market means we know where food comes from“

In the first in a series of having cake and eating it, the Green MEP and economist explains the single market. 

By Julia Rampen

“Here we sit with tea and sweet cakes,” says the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. “That comes from the period of history we are talking about.”

We are sitting in the airy, retro back room of Drink Shop Do, a tea shop near London’s St Pancras station, where Scott Cato will catch the Eurostar back to Brussels. In front of us is a Chinese willow teapot, two cups of Yorkshire Tea, and cakes. 

I’ve challenged Scott Cato, an economist, to explain the single market in terms of having your cake and eating it. Now, she is midway through a lecture on the history of colonialism and trade.

“Why do we have so much tea with sugar in it? Because it was part of the triangular trade,” she says, referring to the notorious system of trading slaves, sugar and manufactured goods between Europe, North America and the West African coast. “People were encouraged to consume more sugar.”

With her neat brown hair, her glasses and her pink and grey tweet coat, Scott Cato wouldn’t look out of place in a lecture theatre. But then she switches to politician mode.  “If you go back to that slogan: ‘Take back control.’ Where did people think that control had gone? 

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“For some people it was that feeling we used to control the world.”

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A few days before we meet, the Prime Minister confirmed what Brexit watchers had long been suspecting – that the UK would leave the EU single market. Instead, she said, the UK would pursue a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with Europe, and other global powers.

“Having your cake and eating it seems to have fallen at the first hurdle,” says Scott Cato dryly. “Basically we are going to abandon the cake we have, for cake we might find elsewhere in the world.”

That isn’t the only difference between the single market and free trade agreements. We tuck into our cakes – pumpkin, pineapple and coconut for me; rosewater and pistachio sponge, and a pecan tart for Scott Cato. 

The single market, she says, is like all using the same recipe. 

“You will use organic eggs, or you won’t use butter that was from a cow that was injected with hormones. 

“It is about agreeing the same rules when you exchange goods. A Free Trade Agreement will never be as good as that.”

Brexiteers who boast they can conquer the world through trade, she believes, are simply enacting a colonial fantasy. Instead, she says, former colonies like India “are laughing their socks off at us”. As for a UK-US trade deal, she likens it to your recipe being hijacked by a more forceful cooking partner: “We would clearly have to give way on where the eggs and butter come from.”

This isn’t exactly a metaphor. The EU banned battery hens in 2012, but in other countries the practice is still allowed. “If we were allowed to import eggs from the US and Turkey we would be back to appalling standards,” argues Scott Cato. The EU food standards watchdogs Britain relies on would also need to be replaced. 

Scott Cato backed Remain in the EU referendum, and is clearly worried that free trade agreements will rip up environmental protections. But she has another reason for opposing global trade.

The MEP for South West England and Gibraltar is part of the transition movement, a grassroots campaign which tries to deal with climate change and other challenges at a local level. 

“In the transition movement, they say ‘We used to make the cake and import the icing, but now they import the cake and make the icing,’” she says. (I nibble my delicious pineapple sponge and try not to think about air miles). 

Like many economists, she expects the price inflation seen since the Brexit vote to continue. Unlike most of them, she sees an upside.

“In my ideal world the increase in the price of imported food would allow farmers here to compete better,” she says. “It would only happen if they get the subsidies they need. But I could imagine a future where we encouraged local means of production.”