It’s being widely discussed, it’s being widely debated, and it’s something a lot of people are having to do their homework on in order to decide which fence they’ll be sitting on – myself included. One particular topic of discussion has been popular with the folk around me – how will it affect our farming lives? Because, after all, it is just that: a lifestyle, and not just employment. And one that so many of us are invested in.
By leaving the European Union, Britain would also be making a departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which is a fundamental part of the EU, and provides financial support to farmers around Europe. So what would this exit mean for the agricultural industry as we know it?
Well, the NFU are claiming they are neither for or against, in or out – and it’s understandable.
How could we really know what would happen if we were to leave?
The NFU do, however, suggest an importance in relationships between us and a lot of EU countries.
7 of the top 10 countries we export food, drink and feed to are in the EU, 9 of the top 10 countries we import food, drink and feed from are in the EU. Agri-food trade that happens within the EU borders isn’t privy to duties, EU exports do face tariffs when exported abroad, as the NFU state: ‘For instance, Norway applies tariffs in the region of 267%-277% for EU cheeses, 344% foe EU beef and 429% for EU sheep meat.’
Of course, if we were to leave, it would throw the UK and our exporters into a stream of negotiations and deals in order to decipher where we go next with our business – something which could potentially affect our relationships with those EU countries.
Nigel Farndale penned an interesting piece for The Spectator back in February suggesting that farming possibly isn’t as high up as it should be: ‘Unlike France’s militant farmers, British farmers have very little clout to our politicians, in fact, they are pretty much an irrelevance — after all, 80 per cent of voters live in towns and cities.’
Is this really the case? Our agricultural sector is irreplaceable, and severely taken for granted it seems. Farndale goes on to say ‘But no other industry is going to feel the impact of a decision to remain or leave quite as keenly as British agriculture. If we leave, indeed, it will represent the biggest upheaval for farming since the repeal of the corn laws in 1846.’
Now, this, I agree with. So what are people thinking? Farndale suggests:
‘So should we vote ‘remain’ if we want to protect our food security? Not necessarily. Consider the question of whether the EU will punish us for leaving, with tariffs depressing prices for UK farmers. It’s possible, but the EU needs us more than we need them. We have a huge trading deficit with the EU and almost half of it, £32 billion, is with Germany. They are desperate for us to keep buying their cars and white goods, so maybe we shouldn’t panic too much on that score.
And how unknown will the unknown we are leaping into actually be? It is known, for example, that we would finally be allowed to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries, because Iceland does this already, most successfully. Already 60 per cent of our trade is with countries outside the EU, and British farmers will become more competitive in their dealings with them if they are no longer tied down by EU red tape. But from the farmers’ perspective, these are secondary issues. What matters more to them in the short term is being able to stay in business, and they won’t be able to do that without subsidies’
George Eustice, a British Agriculture Minister, is inferring that leaving the EU would mean a better life for farm animals, and the farmers too, if working to EU regulations are as strict and non-negotiable as he implies. ‘The reality of working within EU law is that trying to do the simplest of things becomes curiously complicated and often impossible. Some 80 percent of legislation affecting DEFRA comes from the EU with about 40 percent of all EU regulations affecting the UK falling within its remit.’
Eustice, after much expansion on the sheer abundance of risks, and fines, and stresses and audits that come thanks to the EU’s aptitude for such acts, leaves us with this to end his piece in the Telegraph:
‘I see exceptional talent and technical expertise within Defra but it is constrained and hindered by the EU. Rather than being free to construct new ideas and fresh ways of doing things, our policy officials spend their days fretting about whether they are complying with this or that regulation. If we have the courage to take back control, we would be free to think again and could achieve so much more for farmers and our environment.’
A good point, to be sure, but will that just make the wound created by such upheaval susceptible for someone else to come in and fill those shoes? The unknown is scary, fickle and incalculable and it’s easy to see why the opinions are mixed; some strong and acute (like these), some just downright unsure.
We are going to be bombarded with facts, statistics, graphs, speeches and mocking of oppositions continuously until Thursday 23rd June 2016. It’s going to swamp us and sink us, with information oppression, but we need to do our homework, we need to speak to the people around us to find out who will be affected and how. We need to think ahead, and form an intelligent argument either way and we need to listen to people like Farndale and Eustice to help us.