Nuffield scholars had a unique opportunity to share their very latest thoughts on the UK’s relationship with the EU with the President of the NFU, Meurig Raymond, when those from the Hereford area took part in an evening of discussion at the Green Man in Fownhope.
By coincidence, the meeting was on the same day that the UK government outlined its deal on the EU reforms. Looking as though the promised referendum will happen by the summer, there was a lot of interest in where farming would feature in this future relationship.
In his presentation Meurig often based his comments on sections in the NFU’s highly rated booklet, ‘EU Referendum – UK farming’s Relationship with the EU’, and stressed the NFU’s objectives are to make farmers aware of the pros and cons of being in or out.
During the evening three key topics were discussed, each of which will have a fundamental effect on whether, within the next 12 months, Britain will still remain in the EU - the free market, availability of labour and the budget, including the CAP with Meurig pointing out that the UK is a major net contributor to the EU budget.
Today the single market gives UK businesses access to the world’s largest economy with more than 500 million people. And, as a result of the increased market access, the value of UK agri-food exports has more than doubled in the past decade.
“In 2014, for example, 38% of lamb produced in the UK, and £12,619 billion value of gross domestic product was exported to the EU. The big question is…If we were to leave the EU would this trade stop?” asked Meurig.
“Currently, we pay £153 per person to have the privilege of a free market and a voice in the EU. However, countries such as Norway, who are not in the EU, contribute the equivalent of £106 per person for the availability to trade freely with no influence.”
Availability of labour was the next topic discussed. Many of the UK’s crops are seasonal, which can lead to problems for UK employers, when requiring seasonal staff. With UK workers preferring permanent employment, employers are led towards hiring seasonal migrant workers.
In 2014, figures show 34,513 non UK-born workers were employed in agriculture – with 65% of these born in the EU. And this doesn’t take into account the employees who are in the UK only for a few months, which would account for many of the seasonal workers.
Finally, the Common Agricultural Policy – The CAP - which Meurig pointed out accounts for only a small part the overall EU budget, has been the longest standing EU policy and many countries believe it to be the backbone of the EU, with some 55% of the UK’s total farming income coming from CAP support payments.
UK farmers would prefer to farm without financial support from the EU however, in reality, with such extreme volatility, many do not make fair returns and need the support from CAP.
However, Meurig pointed out that previous Secretary of State Owen Patterson was fighting a strong battle to move out of the EU, saying the UK is sustainable on its own, and that the farming industry would be stronger in the long run by exiting the EU, but that view is strongly challenged by many others.
So, with latest polls indicating that 30% of the general public wants to move out of the EU, and 30% wanting to stay in at any cost, with the rest not yet having made up their minds Britain’s farming sector will have an interesting 2016 ahead.