Farm business leaders are clearly rattled. They can see that the campaign to take the UK out of the EU is not going away, even if the “leave” camp is currently channelling the amphitheatre scene in Life of Brian, with the People’s Front for Judea vying with the People’s Judean Front. While Cameron et al are variously threatening the British public with Fire and Brimstone if we leave the EU (Project Fear) or pummelling them with statistics about better business conditions in the EU (Project Fact), farm leaders have set out to persuade us with Project Farm.
Thursday saw Cameron in Edinburgh explaining to the Scots why leaving the EU would be so bad for their farmers. And it was all about exports. As the Guardian reported,
“Risking fresh charges of scaremongering, the prime minister told the Scottish Tories’ spring conference on Friday that salmon, lamb and beef farmers could face tariffs as high as 70% in countries such as Canada if the UK were excluded from the EU’s overseas trade deals and stood outside the single market.
In a clear challenge to Eurosceptics such as Liam Fox – the Scots-born Tory MP for North Somerset, who had earlier addressed an anti-EU fringe event – Cameron said that Scotland’s exporters and 250,000 jobs relied on untrammelled access to the single market.
“It’s for [Eurosceptics] to look those farmers in the eye and tell them if they’re going to have to pay tariffs and, if so, how much,” he told delegates at the Scottish national rugby stadium, Murrayfield.”
Why Cameron is spending his time in Scotland, who already are showing strong support for the UK to stay in the EU, is probably more related to how the Tories will do in the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections than the referendum.
Meanwhile on Friday, a group of Agri-Business leaders called “Farmers For In” launched their campign with a letter published in the Times, despite Times owner Rupert Murdoch being enthusiastically pro-leave. Perhaps he had taken his eye off what was going on at the offices of the Thunderer, while preparing for his marriage to Jerry Hall the following day. Or perhaps he thought that his readers would be less pro-EU if they read the letter as farm business leaders wishing to protect their cash cow. The letter was signed by the great and the good from the NFU, CLA and assorted camp followers. Here it is:
Sir, Leaving the EU is too great a risk for UK farmers. The European single market accounts for 73 per cent of Britain’s agri-food exports and gives us access to a market more than twice the size of the US. Outside the EU we could keep all or some of this market, but we would have to abide by EU regulations without a say in their formation and pay into the EU budget without receiving EU payments in return. We’d pay, but have no say.
The Leave campaigns talk about trying to negotiate a free trade deal similar to the Swiss model. But that would not cover all products and would not give the same unrestricted access as provided by the single market. Where we did get duty-free access we would still be required to meet EU standards and regulations. In other words, the regulatory bonfire we’ve been promised by the Leave campaigns just wouldn’t happen. In any case, some of the worst regulations, as well as the “gold-plating” of EU directives, happen in the UK, not Brussels. On direct payments, Leave campaigners have said it is inconceivable that any UK government would drastically cut support. But it is government policy, set by Labour and endorsed by the coalition government in 2011, to abolish direct payments in 2020.
Leaving the EU would mean reducing our access to our most important market, little or no reduction in regulation, no influence on future rules, the speedy abolition of direct support and an uncertain future for UK agriculture.
So the message is clear, it’s all about exports (which appear front and centre of the first sentence) and the suggestion that we’ll be stuck with EU regulation whether we stay or leave. Apparently Leave are promising a “bonfire of regulations”. It’s not entirely clear how this particular bonfire of regulations will be different from the “bonfire of regulations” which Francis Maude introduced in 2010. Or indeed the bonfire of regulations Francis Maude introduced in 1994. Or for that matter the Bonfire of Regulations Michael Heseltine talked about in 1986. Regulation Bonfires appear to flare up every ten or fifteen years in Whitehall – it’s a wonder any of the buildings are still standing.
One interesting comment worth picking out is the one about Government policy (and the Opposition’s too) to abolish direct payments by 2020. While the UK remains in the EU, this won’t happen, though the current CAP only continues through to 2021. So what the Agribusiness leaders are saying is that we need to stay in the EU so that its rules can over-ride the policies adopted by both the main UK political parties, who want to see more public benefit in return for the £3Bn a year farm subsidy system. They are saying “we can influence farm policy on things like subsidy rules, in our favour, more effectively via Brussels than via Westminster, so we should vote to stay in.” If I were a wavering voter that is exactly the sort of “red rag to a bull” comment that might make me vote leave.
One rather risible farm-based intervention from the leave side also happened, in the form of Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, suggesting that farm subsidies could actually increase if we leave the EU, because of all the extra cash swilling around. The Ulster Farmers Union has claimed that food prices could rise by 30% if the UK leaves the EU – though that is an extreme position that even the NFU are not adopting. It’s difficult to imagine how prices would shoot up that much. Farming is a more significant economic sector in Northern Ireland than it is elsewhere in the UK with 3% employed in the sector.
Villiers appeared to be parroting the position George Eustice set out last week ie same money less regulations, but with bells one.
When asked if she could guarantee that they would continue at the current level, she said: “I don’t think one would want to say that it continues in exactly the same form, but arguably we’ll have cash to spare, so it’s not impossible that we could have a more generous system.”
Ms Villiers declined to say whether a more generous system of farm subsidies was likely, saying that was “for future decision” but added: “I don’t think there’s a credible political party that says they should be scrapped.”
She said that a UK system of subsidies could be less “bureaucratic” that the current Common Agricultural Policy payments.
She said: “I think every political party accepts that we need to continue with farm subsidies – for our food security and for our rural economy, it’s crucial that we support our farmers. There’s no one suggesting otherwise.
“So those kind of payments – maybe not in the same form, but they’d certainly continue – and the sorts of programmes that the EU has funded in Northern Ireland, again, it’s perfectly possible that we could continue to support them because we will have at least an extra £9 billion to spare.
“Even if we continue with every single penny of funding which the EU currently provides in Northern Ireland, there’d still be money left over. This is about ensuring that decisions over those taxpayer funds are actually made here in the UK, rather than in Brussels.”
It’s worth noting that EU funding for agri-environment schemes in Northern Ireland has been cut and cut again over the past 10 years.