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27 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Swapping dinner for crisps? There’s a reason Brexit metaphors are all about food

Right-wing Brexiteers hunger after lower food safety standards. 

By Molly Scott Cato

It started with a crisp, or rather a whole packet of crisps. This was the image Sir Martin Donnelly, former permanent secretary in Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade, used to compare the thin pickings that might be on offer for global Britain compared to the three-course meal we currently enjoy. I am sure crisps will come as a disappointment to Mr Fox, as he was hoping to eat cake. Or at least up until cherry picking season. Just as long as he can find the labourers to do the work.

As an MEP often accused of being on the gravy train, I should perhaps tread carefully with food-based political puns but the invitation here is irresistible. Especially since explaining Brexit through the medium of food is nothing new.

For instance, we had Boris Johnson explaining that Brexit will be good for carrots, because we will be able to “take back control of our agricultural policy”. And that was building on the earlier triumphs of the proposal from Fox’s International Trade Department that we can thrive by selling innovative jam to the French. Until, that is, journalists unhelpfully spoiled the party by pointing out that France is second on the list of global jam exporters, with a volume of some €300m of preserves each year. Undeterred by the laughter echoing in her ears, Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom proposed a Brexit trade strategy based around exporting naan bread to India.

In his attempts to stitch up free trade deals after Brexit, Fox has gone off globetrotting, visiting nearly 40 countries and clocking up around 290,000 miles. Undoubtedly, this has provided opportunities to enjoy some interesting dinners. He visited Vietnam, where he perhaps sampled rice in its many forms. Sticky rice might be his favourite given its dual purpose as a metaphor for the glutinous state of the Tory party post-Brexit. 

Surely, while in the US, he wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to sample chlorinated chicken and hormone-reared beef? After all, some Brexiteers on the right hope to ditch EU food and safety standards in order to secure a US trade deal. Or perhaps he sampled “infected” US dairy products? After all, his fellow Brexiter, Daniel Hannan MEP, wonders “what exactly is the problem” with lower quality American milk and dairy products.

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Of course, Fox is not alone in developing extremely unrealistic trade policy. The EU has had its own fine and fantastical moments. Perhaps the high point was the attempt to sell the JEFTA trade deal between the EU and Japan as an exchange of cars for cheese. Japan is ranked 69th in the world in terms of cheese consumption while the EU is the world’s largest importer of road vehicles. The Commission also failed to notice that a significant proportion of Japanese people are lactose intolerant and will experience considerable discomfort when eating the stinky stuff. 

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But back to cake (a good motto for life). My favourite word in the Brexit lexicon is “cakeism”, which refers to any politician, no matter their political leaning, who claims that they can negotiate a deal with all the benefits of being an EU member while abandoning their responsibilities. The latest example of cakeism is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that the UK can negotiate a customs union agreement with the power to have some influence over the EU’s external tariff regime. Constructive ambiguity or outrageous cakeism? The choice is yours.

It’s probably clear by now that Brexit is not my cup of tea. Like many Brits who work abroad, I enjoy a Belgian cake on a daily basis. And I can confirm that I agree with Council President Donald Tusk: once you have eaten the cake and you look at the plate there is no cake there. As the Brextremists eat their words around the ease of leaving the EU and the wonderful deal we would achieve, the Brexit plate is looking just as empty.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West and Green Party speaker on Brexit.