Should we stay or should we go? How the election EU debate could affect farming

A European Union flag. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A European Union flag. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) - Credit: AP

Through all the TV debates, the hustings and the doorstep discussions, the issue of Europe is a recurring General Election theme – and it is one which has split the main parties.

But despite the EU's single largest policy being devoted to farming, industry leaders say the manifestos have not provided enough clear information on what the repercussions of any change could be for agricultural income, or our international competitiveness.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) accounts for more than 40pc of the entire EU budget, distributing cash to farm subsidies, environmental measures and rural development.

Farmers' leaders say many of the UK's most important trading partners are EU members, and that the CAP helps farmers deal with market volatility and meet the costs of complying with high animal welfare and environmental stewardship standards.

But critics say the CAP distorts the free market rules of supply and demand, while unfairly distributing a large proportion of the EU's budget to a small minority of businesses. There are also concerns about the EU's control of pesticide regulations, taking decisions away from British policy-makers.


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So, should we stay or should we go? Here are the parties' positions:

THE CASE FOR LEAVING THE EU

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UKIP wants to leave the 'excessive regulation' of the EU, and replace the CAP with a British single farm payment structure to support farmers.

Norfolk farmer Stuart Agnew is a UKIP MEP and the party's agriculture spokesman, who is standing as a parliamentary candidate in Broadland. He said: 'Up until 1984 you would have been mad to criticise the CAP. But things have changed a lot since then and there are lot of negative things coming down the line. The amount of EU funding dedicated to agriculture used to be 85pc, but it is now down to 48pc and it is likely to come down even more.

'We are paid in Euros per hectare and the Euro has crashed in value in the last six months, and I cannot see it strengthening in the next six months. We have got some very serious regulation coming in for pesticides, where they are insisting on using the 'hazard' base for their decisions. The organic blueberry contains 65 chemicals, 12 of which the EU would class as hazardous, and five as toxic. So it is all a matter of degree. We would like to use a risk-based assessment for the active ingredients we need to use.'

Mr Agnew said UKIP would replace the CAP subsidy system with a British single farm payment, paying £80 an acre, capped at £120,000.

He said: 'In very simple terms, if British agriculture and rural development receives £3bn from the EU – and I struggle to make it reach that figure, but let's say it does – it costs the British taxpayer £6bn to get that back. We will short-circuit the EU and simply take £3bn off our taxpayers to be able to give our farmers £3bn. It is as simplistic as that.

Mr Agnew said UKIP wanted to negotiate a 'bespoke trading arrangement with the EU' which would allow existing cross-border business to thrive, while allowing competitive trade outside Europe.

LETTING THE PEOPLE DECIDE

The Conservatives want to renegotiate the nation's agreement with the EU before offering the public an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. The Green party also supports a referendum in its manifesto, but would campaign to stay in.

Defra secretary Elizabeth Truss, who is also the Tories' candidate in South West Norfolk, said: 'We want to stay in a reformed EU, but the most important things is we want British people to have a say in that. We want to see a huge simplification to the CAP and we want to see the three-crop rule abolished. I would also like to see decision-making on things like pesticides taken at a national level rather than an EU level to make sure our farmers can have access to the best possible tools.'

When asked what the Tories post-referendum strategy would be in the eventuality of an 'out' vote, she said: 'That would be a matter for discussion in the referendum campaign. We want to stay in a reformed Europe, so our policy is predicated on getting these reforms.

'In any circumstance, our long-term plan is to grow, buy and sell more British food, because it is vital to our country, with the whole food chain worth more than £100 billion.

'I think staying in a reformed Europe is a better option. We have 50pc of our food exports currently going to Europe and there would be repercussions if we were to lose that. On the minus side, we have got a lot of regulations coming from the EU, such as the three-crop rule and the regulation of pesticides, which we need to have more of a say over. So I want to see the best of both worlds.'

Ms Truss said Defra passes on £2bn a year to farmers via the CAP, about half of the department's total budget.

STAYING WITHIN A REFORMED EU

Labour and the Lib Dems both want to remain in the EU, but to reform it for the best interest of Britain.

Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP for the East of England, said: 'The first thing to say is that British farmers get £3bn in direct subsidies Europe, which are at risk of being lost. For many Norfolk farmers, that is the difference between making a profit or a loss every year, so the Conservatives and UKIP are playing a very dangerous game by risking our future in Europe.

'It is a major export market for us, and we are much more dependent on those exports than on the imports that Britain receives. It would be an extraordinarily bad deal for British farmers if we were to pull out.

'There has been study after study that proves by being part of Europe we get better terms in trade with other countries than Britain would get on its own. We have to be able to secure that trade so, again, the Conservatives and UKIP are trying to scaremonger when in the modern world farms are major businesses with many jobs and an important and an important income source for our country. We are not prepared to put that all at risk.'

FARMING VIEWPOINT

NFU vice president Guy Smith raised the question of what the government's post-referendum strategy would be for the EU while chairing the Norfolk Farming Conference in February – and he says he still hasn't seen a compelling answer.

'As a farmer, it is difficult to respond until we are clear on the details on what the repercussions are of a renegotiated deal with the EU, or if that is likely to happen,' he said, 'The NFU is a strictly apolitical organisation, but we do encourage our members to ask searching questions of politicians as to what their vision is. Until I know exactly what the deal is for coming out of Europe, it is difficult to assess how it would compare to staying in.

'If the agreement is to stay in, but in a renegotiated position, then I would want to know what the repercussions of that would be.'

Richard Hirst, chairman of Norfolk-based buying co-operative Anglia Farmers, said the next elected government would need to ensure that British agriculture was competing on a level playing field in Europe, with a sensible strategy on migrant workers.

He said: 'We are in a European market and if there is a move to take us out, then we need a strategy to make sure British farming remains profitable and able to create jobs.

'Bearing in mind this industry is the biggest manufacturing industry in the country, to leave us exposed to competition from Europe could be an unmitigated disaster. We have a requirement here for Eastern European short-term workers and having lost SAWS (the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme) a couple of years ago, it has become really hard to get the people that we need to run particular fresh produce and fruit.

'It is really challenging. Rather than rhetoric about not letting people in here, we need to have something that works for the industry as well as the government.'

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