The Lib Dem spokesman called for the UK to seek a relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway, as he painted a picture of economic disaster if hardline Brexiters get their way.
He said the scuffle between Unilever and Tesco that saw Marmite and other foods briefly withdrawn from online sale at the supermarket was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Releasing a new report, he said a hard Brexit would “lead us off a cliff edge towards higher food prices, with a triple-whammy of punishing tariffs, customs checks and workforce shortages”.
In terms of the costs of exporting to the EU, he said a reliance on World Trade Organisation schedules would lead to tariffs on beef exports at 59%, chocolate at 38%, cheese at 40% and wine at 14%. Clegg said that under WTO rules these tariffs will also have to be applied to all imports into the UK until a trade deal with the EU is struck – a process that is likely to take years. “The only way the government will be able to avoid this outcome is if it maintains Britain’s membership of the single market,” he said.
He said there would be many complicated consequences for different foodstuffs such as chocolate. “There was much totally understandable mockery of the EU when they agreed a chocolate directive after 30 years of wrangling about the definition of chocolate,” he said.
“The standoff for three decades had been about great chocolate produced by Cadbury using vegetable fat and other ingredients and the kind of chocolate purists saying the key ingredient had to be cocoa, not heathen ingredients used here. It meant that our chocolate manufacturers in the Midlands could sell chocolate to sweet shops in Spain, Greece and Finland just as effortlessly as anywhere in the UK.
“If we extract ourselves from that, I guarantee you the chocolate purists will quite quickly start fiddling with the definition of chocolate to make it much more difficult for us to export. So chocolate, along with many other things … is in some danger as well.”
Speaking at the National Liberal Club, he said the only alternative to a full blown crisis of the government’s own making was “pushing for a new Norway-style deal either as an end point or a transitional status pending the ironing out of all our new trading relationships”.
Clegg said customs checks could be even more significant than tariffs, creating huge red tape and bureaucracy if for example a British-made car had to be examined for compliance with every EU regulation at the border.
The senior Lib Dem is one of several parliamentarians from across the major parties pushing for greater scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plans, joining Labour figures such as Ed Milband and Keir Starmer, and Tories such as Stephen Phillips and Nicky Morgan. “The referendum is a mandate to leave the EU, but it is not a mandate to suspend the basic principles of a representative democracy,” Clegg said, calling for greater examination of what Theresa May was planning.