Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has highlighted the benefits of EU membership for the agri-food industry in relation to trade and research opportunities.
Mr Nicholson who believes the UK is better off remaining in the EU said: “Next week’s EU Referendum is the biggest decision to be put to the UK’s electorate in a generation. In my view asking the question; what does a Brexit look like, is not scaremongering as some Leave campaigners would have you believe but is a necessary exercise given the importance of this issue and the possible implications for the future.
“This is especially the case in relation to agriculture given the practical realities of the industry and particularly agriculture in Northern Ireland where supply chains span the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border.
“Trade is a key consideration given that much of what Northern Ireland’s producers produce, over 80% in some sectors, is exported. The bulk of these sales are destined for GB and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is the region of the UK most dependent on EU trade. DAERA figures for 2012 show that in terms of our main agricultural products, exports to the ROI alone accounted for 57.4% of Northern Ireland’s sales to the EU and 15.6% of our total exports.
“The inescapable fact is that if the UK leaves the EU the current Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border becomes the UK/EU border - what would that mean for the agri-food industry and economy as a whole?
“The Leave campaign have made a number of different, hypothetical suggestions as to what trading arrangements could be in place between the UK and EU following a Brexit.
“Trade is of course a two way street and UK consumers currently enjoy a variety of products from across the EU but if we wanted to trade with the Single Market from outside, including of course with the Republic of Ireland, the evidence suggests that this would be less straightforward.
“Some suggest the Norwegian model as an option for the UK to adopt. As a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but not the EU Norway has access to the Single Market but agricultural and fisheries products exported to the EU have substantial tariffs applied. Many EU products such as French cheese, entering Norway are also subject to tariff barriers. Norway must also pay into the EU and accept many of the EU’s regulations and standards, rules they have no say in shaping - is this the scenario we want to find ourselves in?
“EU membership also benefits our universities and researchers, including those working on agri-food related projects, due to the cooperation and funding opportunities that exist. Leaving the EU would lessen the ability of local researchers and industry to play a leading role in Europe wide research and joint innovation projects.
“Something else worth considering is that within the EU agriculture is a powerful and effective lobby. The fact that around 40% of the EU’s budget goes on the CAP is, I believe evidence of this. How high up the list of priorities would a consumer, as opposed to producer, focused UK Government place agriculture?
“Some Leave campaigners have said that following a Brexit UK farmers could, but not would, expect the same if not more direct support than they currently receive. Again there is no clarity, this is because as Boris Johnson himself has stated the Brexiteers are not a government in waiting.
“The differing statements from the Leave campaigners are in effect a ‘wish list’ that changes depending on the audience.”
In conclusion Mr Nicholson said: “I know only too well that agriculture is facing difficulties but I would urge everyone to think long and hard ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“There are many opportunities for trade and research and cooperation that are available as a result of EU membership.
“I am also the first to admit that the European Union is far from perfect but I would suggest that you shouldn’t opt to leave the EU until you can be certain what the alternative looks like.
“While I recognise that the world is an uncertain place the Leave campaign can offer no guarantees. In my view there are simply too many additional unknowns if the UK opts to leave the EU and then enters into protracted and complex negotiations to thrash out new trading arrangements.
“I want a prosperous Northern Ireland and feel that on balance the best way to achieve this is for the UK to remain in the EU and press for further reforms.”