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Rebecca Laughton considers the impact leaving or staying in Europe would have on farming in the UK, with contributions from Ed Hamer and Lynne Davis
Back in December, I attended a symposium organised by Tim Lang at City University entitled “UK, Food, Europe: in or out?”. Over the course of a day we listened to speakers from a diverse range of camps, including the Food and Drink Federation, the NFU, Institute for European Environmental Policy, Compassion in World Farming and Nourish Scotland. It was acknowledged at the outset that “It is impossible to estimate the impact of leaving the EU because we don’t know what relationship we would have with the EU if we did” (NFU Representative). Indeed, much time was devoted to discussing the potential alternative options to EU membership, ranging from remaining in the European Economic area to total exit from everything. Despite this, every single speaker seemed to think that it was better for food quality, the environment and for farm workers for the UK to remain in the EU.
The Landworkers’ Alliance have yet to take a position on whether we should stay in or leave the EU, and are keen to ensure that our position reflects the views of our membership, which is why we have launched this short survey. However, in case you are undecided, here is a summary of the key arguments that we have gleaned from the City Symposium and the farming press for both sides of the debate over June’s referendum than may help inform your opinion.
- As a member of the EU, the UK’s farming industry is subject to a range of European regulations concerning the protection of soils, water, wildlife and animal welfare. The UK has been one of the main lobbyists against these environmental standards in the past. If the UK was to leave the EU many of these regulations are likely to be diluted or abandoned. The NFU has stated that it is better for farmers across Europe to be ruled by uniform regulations, rather than piecemeal regulations decided country by country. Furthermore, when making environmental policy, there are benefits of doing it on a wider scale, rather than just country by country, as environmental problems relating to water, climate, air quality, biodiversity tend to be non-border specific (see page 30 of FRC).
- As a member of the EU, UK consumers are protected by a range of European regulations concerning how their food is produced. While these are considered by some to be “unhelpful red tape”, by others they are viewed as valuable consumer protection. They include environmental health regulations, which are sometimes prohibitive for small-scale producers. They also currently include a presumption against unproven food & farming techniques; like genetically modified crops and chlorinated meat processing. If the UK was to leave the EU some of these regulations will be tightened while others will certainly be relaxed.
- In 2014 the EU accounted for 62 percent of UK farming exports and 70 percent of UK food imports. These imports represent just eight percent of the total agri-food exports of other EU member states while our exports account for just over three percent? of all farming produce traded between member states. This means that while the UK can be seen as an important market for the EU agri-food sector, overall the UK farming sector is much more dependent on EU markets than the EU is on the UK.
- In the event of a complete Brexit, the detail of an independent UK agricultural policy would depend on our relationship with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and new relationship with Europe (ie we wouldn’t have a blank sheet). This “WTO Default” as it is termed, would likely result in the cutting of tariffs but not the increase of them, thus exposing UK farmers to global competition.
- Defra and the Treasury would like to eliminate direct farm payments (ie Pillar 1 of the CAP) by 2020, and leaving the EU would enable them to do this more easily. Removal of direct payments would significantly level the food market in the UK between the largest producers who currently receive massive subsidies and smaller producers who receive less, or none at all. There is also a risk that the UK government would cut agri-environment scheme payments.
- A common misconception among those arguing for Brexit is that the UK pays significantly more to EU than it receives from EU, and that much of this supports “inefficient European farmers”. Looking at the up-to-date figures on UK flows to and from the EU budget for 2014, a different picture emerges. Applying the UK share of 14.1% (before the rebate which is applied to reduce the UK net contribution to the EU budget) in financing overall EU expenditure to the CAP budget, then the difference between what the UK received from the CAP in 2014 (€3.88 billion) and what it contributed to the CAP budget (€7.63 billion) was €3.75 billion. Reducing this by the UK rebate which reimburses the UK by 66 per cent of the difference between its contribution and what it receives back from the budget means that the net contribution of the UK to the CAP budget in 2014 once the rebate is taken into account was €1.27 billion. This is in the context of a CAP budget of around €54 billion in 2014. Relatively little (around 18 per cent) of the UK net contribution now goes to supporting farmers in other EU countries. The UK’s net contribution to the overall EU budget is mainly due to its contribution to transfers to the new member states and to items like the EU’s development aid budget, rather than its funding of farmers in other member states
- If the UK left the EU we would have no MEP’s and no representation in European Parliament. Currently, UK “appropriates EU debate” bringing emphasis on costs, benefits and proportionality, if we leave the EU, debate within the EU will be very different.
- If the UK left the EU there is a possibility that land prices would go down, as the incentive to own more land to access more money from the Basic Payment Scheme would be removed in the event of Pillar 1 subsidies being removed. However, other influences on land prices (ie as a secure investment, as a time when interest rates are low) would probably remain.
- There’s been much talk about certainty and uncertainty, with some preferring to stay in the EU because it brings more certainty than a Brexit, while the “leave camp” say “who knows what will happen to the EU in five or ten years time”. I think we all know that whether or not we stay in the EU, the future is far from certain. With climate change, the mass movement of people and the depletion of natural resources, the human race faces cataclysmic challenges over the next few decades. Surely our decision on whether or not we stay in the EU needs to be guided by what will best serve people and the environment, and it seems on balance that for the UK both will be better served if we remain in the EU and collaborate with our neighbours to create a better future together. Some see Brexit as a distraction from the serious and urgent issues of sustainability and public health (p34 of FRC)
It seems to be widely acknowledged, even by those who are in favour of staying in the EU, that it the EU has many flaws, including being undemocratic, wasteful and too strongly influenced by corporate interests. However, despite these faults, some consider that, as Alan Matthews of CAP Reform UK puts it, “The EU as the embodiment of an idea, of collective action to achieve common goals more effectively than any one nation can do on its own, informed by a spirit of solidarity and enlightment, helping to create binding networks across the continent through trade, through movement and through shared decision-making, remains a powerful force.”
Arising as it does from the global Food Sovereignty movement, the Landworkers’ Alliance is committed to building solidarity with ecological, community and family farmers across the world, including within Europe. Across Europe, such farmers are subject to similar pressures of globalisation and industrialisation as UK producers, and frustrations about the limitations of the Common Agricultural Policy are no doubt shared by our colleagues. If we leave the EU we would be struggling against different challenges to our European colleagues, as we would be subject to different trade agreements. If we are all unhappy with the Common Agricultural Policy, isn’t it better to use our collective muscle from within to create pressure for positive change, rather than stand alone outside it, subject to the much harsher vagaries of global competition and deregulation?
Some further reading if you want to find out more…….
https://foodresearch.org.uk/food-and-brexit/ – This paper, by Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaboration, covers many of the issues raised at the City Food Symposium in December 2015, concerning how Brexit would impact food and farming. The first half contains considerable historical detail on food policy in UK and EU, before going on in the second half to deal, issue by issue with the impact of Brexit or, as they term it, Bremain (the option of staying in the EU).
https://www.fginsight.com/news/eustice-outlines-2bn-plan-b-for-farming-as-defra-ministers-stand-divided-on-brexit-10293 This Farmer’s Guardian Article gives a flavour of some of the main positions of UK Defra ministers on Brexit, as they spoke at the NFU conference at the end of February.
The following two blog posts from Alan Matthews, of the website www.CAP Reform.EU provide further detail on the impact of a Brexit. The second is about a year old, and was written before we knew there would definitely be an EU referendum. If you skip the initial paragraphs, relating to the prospect of a Grexit, much of the rest of it is as relevant today as it was a year ago, and provides useful background info.