24th Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

The return of the chlorinated chicken

  • Chlorinated chicken was partly responsible for killing the planned EU-US trade agreement, TTIP. (Photo: Moyan Brenn)

“I don’t think the chicken wants to be chlorinated either,” joked European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of the last European elections in 2014.

The line was one of the better gags offered by a ‘Spitzenkandidat’, though Anthony Gardner, the US ambassador to the EU at the time, didn’t see the funny side.

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The chlorinated chicken, together with the hormone-treated cow and investor state dispute settlement system, was responsible for killing off an EU-US trade deal, known as TTIP, in the court of public opinion.

Not content with befouling EU-US trade talks, the chickens have re-emerged as obstacles in the way of the UK brokering a landmark post-Brexit pact with Washington.

Britain's international trade minister, Liam Fox, who wants to stitch up a deal with the US to be signed almost immediately after the UK formally leaves the EU in spring 2019, thinks that the ‘chlorinated chicken’ debate is an insignificant detail and the latest example of unpatriotic treachery by a hostile media.

“Americans have been eating it perfectly safely for years,” he told reporters.

His cabinet colleague, environment minister Michael Gove, insists that the aforementioned birds must not be allowed into the UK. Formal talks with the Americans, lest we forget, have not even started.

Familiar story

To Brussels trade-watchers this will sound familiar.

TTIP floundered, in part, because then EU commission for trade Karel de Gucht could never understand why consumer groups got so worked up about the chickens, beef and GM crops, allowing campaign groups to portray the proposed deal as one that would unleash unfettered market forces and lower consumer standards on Europeans.

In reality, the row is a bit of a storm in a hen coop.

The US poultry industry uses chemicals to eliminate bacteria collected during the rearing and slaughter of the birds, at the end of the meat production chain. The EU’s consumer safety standard takes more of a ‘farm to fork’ approach.

However, ironically, the European Food Safety Authority has judged that chemically rinsed chickens, including chlorine dioxide, are safe to eat.

This is a brave new world for the UK civil service, which has not negotiated a trade deal since the 1970s, and the row has demonstrated the complexities involved.

But the prize is big enough to make it worthwhile. Along with a post-Brexit trade pact with the EU-27, the jewel in the crown for Fox’s international trade department would be the United States, even with its distinctly protectionist president, Donald Trump.

Yet while EU officials have scoffed at the UK’s apparent willingness to try out the birds, they have reason to be wary of London jumping the queue for a trade pact with the US.

Jumping the queue

Having spent 2013-16 engaged in painstaking negotiations with their American counterparts, led by Dan Mullaney, the Commission’s trade team does not want to have its Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – now effectively moth-balled by the Trump administration – to be gazumped by the Brexit British.

A successful US-UK pact could also increase the pressure on the EU to offer London generous terms.

“Successful trade talks with Trump will strengthen the capacity of the UK to negotiate with the Commission, and it will infuriate Angela Merkel,” says a senior French government adviser.

That is reason enough for Liam Fox to make regular trips across the Atlantic, and for prime minister Theresa May to roll out the red carpet for the yellow-haired one.

Trade deals, however, are all about leverage. Large and wealthier countries are invariably able to dictate terms to the small and poorer. By dint of the size of its 500-million-person market, the EU was able to effectively veto US chicken and beef imports without the US negotiators walking away.

The US will want agriculture to be part of a deal, and the prospect of the UK having the power to say no to the US farming lobbying is probably slightly dimmer.

It underscores how difficult and time-consuming it is to broker a trade deal, and the pitfalls involved along the way. The UK currently imports £4 billion of meat per year, of which poultry amounts to £900 million, out of total imports of £400 billion.

The tale of the ‘chlorinated chicken’ is a cautionary one for Liam Fox and co. In trade talks, the devil is always in the detail, and scare stories, whether justified or not, can easily derail a deal that has been years in the making.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a freelance writer.

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