The timing of the Ulster Farmers’ Union debate on the EU referendum could not be better. It will be on June 7, just over two weeks before the vote.
By then people that are still undecided will have to be making up their minds, and the number of floating voters highlighted by polls suggests there is still a lot to play for on both sides of the argument.
Over the past couple of weeks the debate has taken on a harder edge. This is because both sides realise this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make or lose their case. Regardless of what some may say, no matter how close the result is there will not be another referendum. Indeed when it is over the challenge will be for David Cameron to re-establish unity in his party after months of blood-letting. Chairing the UFU debate will be fun, but hopefully it will be farmers rather than politicians who take the opportunity to have their questions answered. This is no disrespect to politicians, but with the major parties having already set out their stalls, there would be no prizes for guessing what politicians will say.
There is certainly a need for a proper debate. What we have had to date are a series of claims and counter claims, all expressed in sound bites. This is a reflection of how the media has to operate on such a controversial issue. People will have different reasons for how they will vote. Sovereignty and migration will be headline issues, but for many farmers it will be about which outcome will deliver the better result for their business. That has to include the crucial issues of the continuation of support and trade in the event of Brexit.
We are into the period when civil servants must adopt a neutral role, which is why the past ten days have seen so much published by the Treasury on the consequences of Brexit. Ironically while farmers are more dependent on the CAP than other parts of society there has not been a lot said about agriculture by either side – hence the need for the UFU debate. The issues that need to go beyond sound bites include food prices, the future of farm support and trade. Both sides accept that in the event of a Brexit decision the value of sterling would drop and that would create the conditions for the UK to enjoy something of an export boom.
The question then becomes where those exports will be destined. Within the EU when sterling is weak there is a ready market on our doorstep. That market will still be there, but the unknown is what conditions the UK would have to meet to trade with the EU. Led by France, the countries there will insist UK produce at least matches the standards of the CAP farmers are keen to escape. The gamble with trade is replacing a guaranteed market of 500 million people in the EU with the hope of doing more business with the rest of the world. But there is nothing in EU rules to stop British companies trading wherever they want outside the EU. Those markets are there today to be exploited by any member state. It is true that the EU, as a bloc, wants to conclude trade deals with South America, Canada and the United States. It argues that it can be more successful doing so, since it can offer a market of 500 million consumers, while a trade deal with the UK alone would be to access a market of just 60 million. This is an argument the Leave advocates need to address, to show that the trade deals they promise can be delivered.
One of the warnings was that in the event of Brexit food prices would rise. This has to be based around that fall in the value of sterling. Given that the UK, or to be more accurate England, is not self sufficient in food a fall in the value of sterling would increase the price of imports, particularly from the eurozone countries. This would however only apply if those countries were able to demand higher prices. Like the trade claims on the Leave side, this is why we need to move from sound bites to facts – and it is why farmers should use the UFU debate to challenge the speakers to make a real case on which they can decide how to vote on June 23.