UK departure now a reality

Theresa May
Theresa May

After the triggering of Article 50 we know now that by March 30 2019 the UK will no longer be a member of the EU.

This makes the departure all the more real. When it happens it will be 46 years since the UK joined what was the EEC, which became the EC and eventually the European Union. Over that 46 years UK policy and legislation has been dominated by Brussels, and that is especially so in agriculture. With the departure date set, agriculture needs to step up preparations for a very different future.

This is full of uncertainties, the key one being whether the UK Treasury will support farming to the same level as in the EU 27. It is a big ask to expect funding equivalent to the UK average for direct payments. That is an even bigger ask here, where average per acre payments are close to three times the UK average. The UK farm unions held a summit this week, coinciding with the UFU dinner in Newcastle, and this was inevitably dominated by Brexit. However with the stakes so high a common approach is not easy to forge.

Interests are similar, but very different in the detail. For much of England the key issue is continuing access to migrant labour for seasonal farm work. The Scottish view is tied up with the battle there over another referendum, overhung by a continuing drive, even in the final years of CAP payments, to reallocate these to Scotland’s advantage and our disadvantage. Here the issue is the level of support, with the additional problem of political deadlock at Stormont, just when the industry needs a local minister to negotiate at Westminster.

Reaction to the Article 50 letter has been interesting. It has made the UK’s departure more real for the other member states. They are mostly now more conciliatory about the difficult negotiations that lie ahead. They are also coming to realise how much they will miss the UK, not only from a financial perspective, but from its role as a negotiator and as a balancing force between the major power blocs. Also missed will be skills of British diplomats and officials, who are good at what they do and popular in Brussels. Many are now regretting that they did not offer David Cameron a better deal before the referendum last June. However the decision is now irreversible and the challenge over the next two years is to secure the best deal possible.

Based on what farmers say about Brexit most that voted Leave have not changed their mind. They accept this is a big step into the unknown. They know it will be a huge challenge to convince the Treasury in London to support agriculture to the degree it has been supported through the CAP for 40 plus years. That they accept these risks underline how unpopular the CAP had become. Those remaining in the EU 27 will eventually realise it is impossible to have a centrally controlled CAP instead of a lighter touch regime. By the time that happens we will be long gone, and the challenge is to make a UK, outside the EU, a trading success.

In studies on the impact of Brexit, which coincided with the triggering of Article 50, there are certainly some big threats to agriculture. It is high on the list of industries most exposed to change as a result of Brexit. The cross-party think tank, Demos, put Wales, the east of England and Northern Ireland as the regions most at risk. One of the reasons is dependence on agriculture – in the case of Wales and Northern Ireland on the Single Market to export lamb, and in England the use of migrant, seasonal labour.

The Great Repeal Bill will bring all EU legislation into UK law. This will ensure continuity, and legislation can then be amended over time. That will not include the CAP, which expires in 2020. This has triggered a campaign for a post-Brexit scrapping of red tape. One of the claims of those behind this drive, is that ending the CAP will reduce food prices by £10 billion a year. However the only way savings on that scale could be delivered would be by dismantling the EU tariff walls against food imports.

That is what many at Westminster want to happen, and it is why a Brexit deal that maintains access to the Single Market would favour agriculture.