Ritchie: A vote for Europe is a vote for our farmers

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For me farming and agriculture are integral parts of our economy and culture in Northern Ireland. A visitor need only look outside their airplane window to see the importance of farming to who we are as a people.

Today, there are over 20,000 farms in the North, employing 28,000 people and generating nearly £1.9 billion for our local economy. It is a hugely important export industry. Yet despite this, we could be only months away from a decision to exit the European Union – a step which could fatally undermine our farming industry as we know it.

Put simply, it is the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that enable Northern Ireland to have a viable, large-scale agricultural industry which makes family farming sustainable. Leaving the EU would undermine this and put the future of agriculture in jeopardy. This should be no surprise - creating a strong, co-ordinated agricultural sector is one of the founding purposes of the European Union.

The most obvious way the EU supports agriculture is through the direct subsidies it provides. Northern Ireland is a significant net recipient of EU funding, partially because of the proportionately ‘above UK-average’ size of our farming sector. Europe provides our farmers with over £200 million a year through the Direct Farm Payments scheme and as recently as last Christmas established an emergency assistance package for dairy farmers that gave dairy farmers in Northern Ireland £2,000 each.

While no one wants our agricultural sector to be reliant on subsidies forever, this support has been an essential lifeline over tough years and has kept many farms from going out of business entirely. Support from the European Union has kept our farmers on the land despite falling global prices and is the base upon which we can build an economically sustainable industry in the future. Leaving the European Union would put all this into doubt.

Eurosceptic politicians have tried to dismiss these concerns and are essentially asking voters to trust the British Chancellor to replace the millions farmers would lose as a result of UK exit from the EU. Having worked for years to represent the needs of Northern Irish farmers in Westminster, I know from personal experience how hard it is to extract any real financial support from an austerity-driven Government. Even in recent times we know how little help came from London for farmers affected by unprecedented levels of flooding. We know also how little the UK Government has done to stabilise the unsustainably low wholesale milk price, where even our most efficient dairy farmers are losing money on every litre produced.

I urge voters and Northern Ireland farmers in particular to bear in mind our recent experience of austerity and ask themselves the question “should I risk losing certain support from the European Union, in exchange for vague promises of compensation from London?”

Leaving the EU could also mean a real undermining of the North/South agriculture trade and supply lines in Ireland... When Prime Minister Cameron came to the House of Commons recently to announce the outcome of his renegotiations, I asked him directly for an assurance that free movement in Ireland could survive a UK exit from the EU.

In his reply to me, while he acknowledged the problem, he was completely unable to give any guarantee on our continued right to trade and cross the border freely.

The idea of a new EU ‘hard-border’ being erected in Ireland has been dismissed by some eurosceptics as ‘scare-mongering’. Yet it is an undoubted reality that as a permanent external border of the European Union, with all the current problems with immigration and international terrorism our current open North/South border would become a heavily fortified international frontier. Surely no one wants this?

As a member of Westminster’s DEFRA Committee I see at close quarters the UK Government’s awkward approach to EU agriculture harmonisation. I have no doubt that following a UK exit from the EU, the North and South of Ireland would over time find themselves with ever diverging laws and regulations in the agriculture sector, necessitating the imposition of customs checks on the border and other tariff barriers and stifling North South business development. Our local farmers and processors in Northern Ireland must consider how their business would be affected by losing access to the South and if this is a risk they can afford to take.

Ultimately, the decision we make on our membership of the EU will determine what kind of agricultural sector Northern Ireland will have in the future: Membership of the EU amplifies the voice of local agriculture and allows us not only to export freely to EU member states, but also to negotiate with other trade blocks from a position of strength. It is hard to see how an isolated UK could negotiate more favourably. Indeed within an isolated UK, we could be restricted in access to our best markets while seeing our home market flooded with lower-quality produce further undercutting prices to our farmers.

Within the EU we can build a high-quality, export-orientated future for Northern Ireland’s agriculture.

My Party, the SDLP, believes a vote to stay in the EU is a vote to make our farmers successful both now and for generations to come.