In June 2016 a perfect storm of ‘interests’ managed to convince the British people to vote to Leave the EU. Among those ‘interests’ was “big sugar.”
Little known fact: The European Union is the largest beet producer in the world churning out 17 million metric tons per year. The Common Agricultural Policy has long been protectionist towards EU produced beet – even as it (often very reluctantly) reformed other areas. While a small amount of cane sugar can be imported into the EU at €98 per tonne, most is imported on a tariff of €339 per tonne and naturally the sugar companies do not like it. At the time of the referendum, Tate and Lyle estimated that the additional costs of tariffs added as much as €3 million to each shipment.
There are two big players in the UK sugar industry. British Sugar, which produces 55% of our domestically produced sweet stuff, uses beet in its production process and EU (mostly British) suppliers and thus manufactures its commodity tariff free. Tate and Lyle Sugars is a cane importer and is thus obliged to pay tariffs on imports. Unsurprisingly, the company has been opposed to British membership of the Union from the very start.
During decades of hostility to the EU/EEC, Tate and Lyle managed to make friends in some very high places and one in particular. Prior to becoming an MP Brexit Secretary David Davis worked for the company for 17 years and was actively engaged in lobbying against the then EEC tariff. During the 2016 referendum Tate and Lyle Sugars was one of the few big companies to support Leave and this year sponsored the Brexit heavy Conservative Party Conference, a move branded ‘disgraceful’ by British farmers
While heralding the “golden opportunity” that Brexit will bring Tate and Lyle, oddly, neglects to mention either that they have been owned by US sugar giant American Sugar Refining since 2012 or that the ‘EU beet sugar’ they are so upset about is produced – in Norfolk. T&L’s cane sugar isn’t.
So where does it come from?
Sugar cane plays a vital role in the economies of countries like Mexico and Brazil and an even bigger part in that of poorer and smaller Latin American nations like – Belize. Sugar cane remains the principle commodity of that relatively small Commonwealth country, accounting for almost a quarter of all exports while 15% of the population in this fairly poor country rely directly on it for a living. According to their former trade envoy to the UK, Belize exports all of its sugar to Britain. In theory, Belize, along with Fiji and Guyana is exempt from EU sugar tariffs – but multinational corporations have an unnerving habit of looking at ‘the big picture’ where their exports are concerned.
The Brexit links to Belize have been well documented before but here’s a quick reminder. Brexiteer Lord “Panama Papers” Ashcroft is a Belizean citizen and has dedicated much of his life (and assets?) to the country, serving as their Ambassador to the UN between 1998 and 2000. He admits that his businesses have been exempt from certain taxes there. Ashcroft allegedly gave the People’s United Party $1m when in opposition – it in turn introduced laws which are claimed to have been financially advantageous to Ashcroft. His Lordship has an uneasy relationship Dean Barrow the Prime Minister of the small country but it is often descibed as his (Ashcroft’s) private dominion and he owns the Bank of Belize in which Barrow is a shareholder.
Arron Banks, former UKIP donor and Leave EU Official boss-man also has close personal and financial links to the country and was the nation’s “special envoy to Wales.” Banks has managed to draw something of a veil over his associations with the Central American state but at least some of his wealth is said to be held in off-shore Belize.
Incidentally, Arron’s father David was awarded an OBE for services to overseas sugar in 2002.
Then there’s Andy Wigmore.
Arron Banks’ chirpy side-kick, Leave EU colleague and employee Andy Wigmore is not merely a Belizean citizen and sporting hero – who represented Belize at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, he was until January of 2017 the Trade & Investment Minister at the Belize High Commission in London. This diplomatic post existed, in the words of his LinkedIn profile to ‘promote trade and investment into Belize.’
Now – let’s stop for a moment here and actually take that in.
Andy Wigmore – Comms and Number 2 at Leave EU Official – a vastly important player in the Brexit referendum was, at the time of the EU Referendum campaign, a foreign diplomat, employed by that foreign power, with the explicit role of promoting trade and investment into that nation. The Vienna Convention, which defines the framework for diplomacy between nations, states that diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the State.” But here was Wigmore – the trade envoy of a foreign country, actively doing just that.
Taking back control yes? But for whom?
Following his and fellow Brexit “bad boys” meeting with Donald Trump – Wigmore was obliged to resign as a diplomat, ironically on the insistence of Boris Johnson. It seemed that by meeting Trump, Wigmore was breaching his “duty not to interfere in the internal affairs [of another country]” as an accredited diplomat under the terms of the Vienna Convention – something he had already done in the UK – but oddly Boris let that one go. Wigmore resigned, but months later he was to be found, still cavorting about the British Isles in a car with diplomatic plates.
Belize (and her powerful players) may have lost a trade envoy – but what had they gained in the process? The country and its politicians are much obsessed with the price of sugar on account of it being not merely the key economic issue but by dint of that – a political one as well. In Belize – sugar is political power – but as a tiny nation is perhaps more in thrall to its ‘sponsors’ and the biggest of those (apart from Ashcroft) is ‘big sugar.’
Despite theoretically not being subject to EU tariffs Belize Sugar Industries has faced many difficulties importing into the UK and the EU which has long favoured domestic beet production. Wigmore has been vociferous about this in the past, insisting on social media and candidly to the Evening Standard, that Brexit will be a bonanza for the small country. Belize’s cane producers clearly hope that the UK market will now be opened up wide after the country withdraws from the EU. That will benefit Belizean farmers and producers, Belize itself, politicians in parties like Lord Ashcroft’s friends at the PUP – but the biggest winners will be the majority shareholders in Belize Sugar Industries.
And – who might those guys be?
Well – since 2012 – that prize has belonged to an American parent company called ASR or American Sugar Refining – and if you think the name sounds familiar from earlier on in this piece then let me save you the trouble of scrolling back – it’s the same parent company that owns Tate and Lyle sugars. The benefits to ‘Tate and Lyle’ that Wigmore, T & L and even the government have been so keen to promote are essentially ‘benefits to the US company ASR’ and their shareholders.
Now, I don’t want to go all Canary/Infowars on you, it might of course be a coincidence that a foreign trade envoy, working for a country whose main export is sugar moonlighted as the comms guy for a campaign whose few beneficiaries included sugar producing Belize and big sugar.
You may be absolutely fine with your Brexit Secretary having worked for nearly two decades for the one big business that backs the UK leaving the EU – and why should that big sugar producer not sponsor the Tory Party Conference?
But – there are serious questions here – questions of loyalty and integrity that go right to the top of our government and all of us – not least the beet farmers of Norfolk – are deserving of some answers.
This article has been updated (July 2018)