The EU farming debate held at Balmoral Park was very similar to many meetings that are taking part across the UK as we weigh up the options for the critical EU referendum on June 23rd.
Voters know what they are unhappy about and are tempted by the leave camp, but no one can agree on what out looks like. For farming this is both dangerous and disingenuous as the leave camp make promises they cannot possibly keep.
Farmers need to be aware that this is a jump into the unknown and there is no credible manifesto that we can hold the leave camp to. This is not a general election; we can’t on reflection realise we were duped and as we could every five years dump the governing party. This is for real and we have no idea what we are signing up to.
For UK farmers in the single market, this means 500m of the world’s richest consumers on our doorstep who can buy our great British produce free of tariffs. This market is more important in Northern Ireland as so much of the agricultural produce is exported. It sets the price we receive and enforces common standards - that means our militant French colleagues cannot keep our lamb or any other product out!
Brexiteers argue that ‘they need us more than we need them.’ It’s not that simple. For NI 54% of what is exported goes into the EU market yet less than 8% of what the rest of the EU exports arrives in the UK. 73% of UK agricultural exports go to the EU. I remember only too well how the FMD outbreak stopped exports and how the price of lamb fell dramatically overnight. No one can guarantee tariff free access for our products into this vital market so let’s be crystal clear: any tariff or an increase in the cost of trading will come straight off farmer’s bottom line.
Let’s also take a look at the trade aims of those advocating Brexit. Michael Gove recently noted that a big selling point of leaving the EU would be cheaper food; yes cheaper food! We all know who really pays for cheap food – farmers, rural communities and our unique environment. Thankfully, Commissioner Phil Hogan knows, for example, that the EU beef industry would be devastated if South American beef was allowed unlimited into the EU free of tariffs. I know Mr Hogan will defend the EU beef industry to the hilt, I don’t have the same confidence in the free traders of the Conservative right who can’t wait for unfettered free markets.
I am also not convinced it’s an easy job instantly striking new trade deals around the world. The recent EU deal with Canada took seven years to negotiate. We currently benefit from over 50 such trade agreements; all of these would need renegotiating with very little time to do it.
The important topics in this debate are money and access, so let’s move on to cash. I have long argued that the future lies in growing markets and less reliance on support payments.
I believe that if support is to be reduced, it should be unravelled across the EU so that as farmers we don’t face unfair competition from our near neighbours. So what have the Brexiteers in mind? The campaign group ‘Farmers for Britain’ say they will protect subsidies, probably increase them and at the same time abolish cross compliance.
I have always been nervous of politicians bearing gifts, and even more nervous when I’m told the cheque is in the post. We would all be wise to see through this.
There’s a need for a reality check on the ‘£350m a week’ to spend if we leave, the apparent ‘cost’ of our EU membership. After Mrs Thatcher’s rebate, the regional funds and the money for farmers, this figure is actually £153m at best.
Promises abound on what this mythical ‘£350m a week’ will be spent on - the NHS, a rebate on council tax, the list goes on. It sounds to me like farming would be at the bottom of a big pile of other priorities. George Eustice argues that Parliament will insist on farmers receiving support but with the economy under pressure I think the chance of existing support continuing is zero.
Remember that in the UK less than 25% of constituencies are considered rural, it’s the towns and cities that win elections.
It’s these same voters who are being promised cheap food and with the swish of a magic wand new trade deals with the EU and the rest of the World.
I farm near Cambridge, I was President of the NFU in England and Wales for eight years, and I am convinced that outside the EU farming will have fewer friends to fight our corner and have less support. This isn’t a General election, this will damage farming for a very long time.