This Thursday, as citizens and voters of the United Kingdom, you have an opportunity to vote on the relationship which we have with the European Union, writes DUP MEP Diane Dodds.
Back in 1975 the people had their say on the European Economic Community, a choice which is very different to that of next week.
Now we belong to the European Union. A political union of 28 Member States with the stated goal of “ever closer union.” A federalist project where more and more of our sovereignty, more and more control of our laws, our money and our borders is ceded to Brussels.
One commentator recently made a comparison on the economic differences: - “In 1975,Europe was fast growing and dynamic, and Britain was a laggard; the deutschmark a symbol of the EEC’s potency. Today? Well we need no reminding about the Euro’s problems and the never ending Greek crisis symbolises its failures.”
The DUP has campaigned for a referendum. It is absolutely right that the people of the United Kingdom should have a say on this changing relationship. Having given the Prime Minister the space to conduct his renegotiation we have concluded that the balance of the argument lies with our liberation from the federalist structures and economic failures of the European Union.
However, I must be clear, in this referendum debate there are no straight forward answers to complex questions. This is a referendum and everyone has an equal and direct say in this important matter. Farming and agri food is important to our economy and is the backbone of rural communities. Equally, the Basic Payment is vital to farm families and the stability of the industry. Continuing support of this kind is necessary in any post referendum situation where the United Kingdom votes to leave the EU. There are compelling reasons why such support would continue. Food security and supply security will be high on the political agenda given that the UK is only 76% self sufficient in food.
Some in the Remain camp down play the importance of the agri-food sector in a UK context.
The agri food sector is the UK’s single largest manufacturing sector employing over 3.7m people and is worth 103bn a year to the UK economy. No Government would turn their back on the primary producer who feeds their people and which plays an important role in the economy. No westernised country in the world fails to support their farmers. Why would the UK be any different?
Let’s not forget that the money our farmers receive is our own money returned with strings attached. In 2014 the UK financed, 14.1% of the Common Agriculture Policy.
That was a budget spend of €7.63bn and a return of €3.88bn in the form of Basic Payments and Rural Development funds. A vast sum of money is already available to spend on support and we have commitments from the Prime Minister and the Leave Campaigners that direct support would remain.
The Common Agriculture Policy is broken and not delivering for farmers here in Northern Ireland. At every CAP negotiation the percentage of the EU budget it receives has decreased. There will be no change in this trend. The current CAP is moving more money away from production. In Northern Ireland farmers are currently undergoing a process of equalisation of payments per hectare. The next stage of this process is to equalise payments across Europe. Even more of our money will be spent on supporting our competitors in other European states. That is not to mention inability of the Commission to tackle unfairness within the supply chain, deal with the crisis facing all sectors and to reduce the nightmare which is cross compliance and disallowance.
What are the implications for trade if we leave the EU? Northern Ireland currently exports 59% of agri food products to GB, 22% to RoI, 15% to the rest of the EU and 4% to the rest of the world. NI is highly dependent on the GB and RoI markets. The Republic of Ireland is, however, heavily dependent on the GB market as well. Recent figures show that almost 50% of food from RoI is sold on the UK market. Recent exchanges in debates in the Dail indicate that Ministers will do everything to ensure that these markets are kept open.
On a UK basis we import 18 billion pounds worth of food from Europe and export 7.5 billion. The trade deficit with Europe in food alone is 10 billion. We are the 5th largest economy in the world with a consumer base of 64 million people. We are one of Germany’s largest global trading partners. If we do leave the EU there are numerous Member States which, during the negotiations, will make it a priority to have a mutually beneficial trade agreement with the UK. Even more exciting is the potential that will be opened up to trade more easily and openly with the rest of the world.
I know the majority of farmers I have spoken to over the past number of months are disillusioned with European policies and have experienced terrible hardship in face of volatile global markets. Europe has failed to meet their needs. In fact it has made it harder to farm and reduced competitiveness. Many are saying that it is time to leave.
This was evidenced in a recent straw poll at a UFU Brexit debate and over the last number of days in the support for the Leave campaign. This is an important and historic opportunity for our United Kingdom. I know that Northern Ireland’s farming community will want to play its part as we vote to take control of our country and our farming policies.