Should Britain's wine merchants care about leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister has today set in train the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union.

The Government aims to renegotiate central aspects of our relationship with the EU and publish a draft referendum bill before May 2015, with a view to hold a vote by 2017.

Make of the politics of all this what you will. What does it mean for the wine trade, and where does the trade stand?

Harpers is running a rough-and-ready poll on its web site. Of sixty-one responses so far, more than half (54%) say Britain should stay in the EU, roughly one-fifth (21.3%) say we should leave, and just under a quarter (24.6%) back Mr Cameron's position, i.e. to stay but with significant changes.

We can't draw any solid conclusions from it, bar perhaps that Harpers web readers are a pretty Europhile bunch.

Yet it got me thinking. Wine merchants, aside from worthy all-English traders such as the Wine Pantry, have an internationalist mindset. Nigh on all our products come from overseas. Many come from within the EU. The trade is, therefore, inherently interconnected with Europeans and the wider world, and perhaps more likely to look kindly on closer links to the EU and the (relatively) freer movement it brings to people, goods and transactions.

So there could be a psychological or cultural Europhilia among the wine trade that pits them naturally against departure, at odds with a sizeable minority or slim majority of the British public (depending on which poll you believe).

What about the stark, practical facts? European currency transactions should be unaffected by leaving the EU, because Britain is already outside the Eurozone. Exchange rates will continue to play a big part in a wine merchant's plans.

Customs are cause for greater concern. The presumption is that even if Britain left the EU, provisions would be put in place to carry on with a free trade arrangement like Switzerland or Norway. If that is so, then this too shouldn't be much affected.

Other countries around the world, such as the USA, manage to import plenty of wine from the EU without undue difficulty. In fact, on a recent buying trip to Liguria (whose wines are rarely seen on British shelves or wine lists), I discovered that several winemakers' main export market was the USA. Whatever happened with the EU, Britain would still be the traditional epicentre of the international wine trade and its most competitive market place. Our merchants would continue to buy from the EU and Europeans would continue to want to sell their wines to us.

There could, conceivably, be a hiccup over our own wine exports. On the surface, for the same reasons outlined above, I cannot see why it should be a huge problem, other than our vineyards would then be outside the regulatory control of the EU. Could that put Europeans off buying English wines? It's possible, but not plausible. Nonetheless, the main focus for English winemakers on the export scene so far seems to be the Far East. Our sparkling wines are a curiosity in France, but can you really imagine the French rushing down to their local marchand de vin for a bottle of English wine instead of Champagne or a local cremant? It's a nice thought, but a distant one.

The concomitant point to that would be that outside EU wine regulations, English winemakers would have greater freedom to experiment. Chapel Down's quirky attempt to make English Malbec from imported Argentine grapes fell fowl of EU officials, UKIP making great play of it with a mock 'non-wine' tasting in the European Parliament. Outside the EU, such a cross-border collaboration could have been possible. (I should add, fun as it sounds, that's not a reason to leave the EU. Really.)

So where are we on this? This country already has frightfully high duty on wine, so whatever happens in Mr Cameron's upcoming negotiations (or in the unlikely event we leave the EU entirely), British wine merchants would need firm reassurance that free trade between us and Europe would remain and customs & excise would not rocket upwards.

Much depends on how the negotiations go, and if we leave on what terms. Overall though, and in an instantaneous manner, it seems to me that the wine trade does not technically have much to fear from an EU exit. It certainly should have nothing to fear from renegotiated terms of membership (the preferred outcome).

Any comments are, of course, most welcome.

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