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Post-Brexit Britain 'wouldn't back farming'

PUBLISHED: 06:30 29 April 2016

Lord Deben speaking at a farm Brexit  debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre.

Lord Deben speaking at a farm Brexit debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre.

No British government would give farming the backing it enjoys under the European Union (EU), Suffolk farmers were warned this month.

UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew speaking at a farm Brexit debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre.UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew speaking at a farm Brexit debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre.

Speaking at a Brexit debate in Debenham, pro EU membership Lord Deben told farmers the reality was that UK government policy was dictated by the large urban vote, not the much smaller rural population.

The former Environment Secretary under Prime Minister John Major, debating with pro-Brexit speaker and Norfolk farmer Stuart Agnew, a UKIP East of England MEP, gave a stark assessment of how the UK would fare outside the EU.

“I do not believe that farming would be supported as it is,” he warned.

But Mr Agnew, speaking earlier this month at the event hosted by farm charity Farming Community Network, suggested that the UK would back its farmers, and was in a unique position as it was a major importer of European goods and EU countries needed to trade with us for our mutual benefit.

Farm Brexit debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre 

Lord Deben (for) and Stuart Agnew MEP (against) will be debating the two positions in the referendum. David Barker chairing.Farm Brexit debate hosted by Farm Community Network at Debenham Community Centre Lord Deben (for) and Stuart Agnew MEP (against) will be debating the two positions in the referendum. David Barker chairing.

“We export £170million of our lamb to France. We import £650m worth of wine from France. Who’s going to rock the boat on that?” he reasoned.

“That trading deficit in agriculture is reflected in a much wider trading deficit.

“Norway is unique in the relationship it has with the EU. Switzerland have a different relationship. Fifty-odd countries have a relationship with the EU.

“We are in such a unique position in that we are their biggest single customer.”

But Lord Deben poured cold water on the idea that a Brexit Britain would be in a strong position to negotiate good trading terms with its European neighbours.

“If we wanted a free trade arrangement with the EU under the treaty, every country would have to agree to a new treaty if they were to change the treaty,” he said.

“If we were not in, they (the other EU states) would be protecting their own markets.

“It’s perfectly true the French sell us a lot of wine. We put a big tax on that wine. They don’t like it.

“If there were a tariff on the wine they would not like it, but it would be a lot less than the tax on it.”

Britain, in order to achieve full free trade, would have to accept freedom of movement anyway, he suggested.

“That (an exemption from free movement) could only happen if the whole of Europe, the 27 other remaining countries, voted to give us that special arrangement that they have not agreed to give to much smaller countries like Norway and Switzerland,” he said.

Being part of the EU, and the benefits of peaceful trading, had, along with NATO, helped to keep the peace across the continent after the devastation of World War II, he argued.

While other European countries had much more “farmer power”, agriculture’s sway in the UK was far less, he said, as he suggested that the £3billion in farm subsidies that farmers currently receive from the EU would be put in jeopardy by a decision to leave the EU.

“I’m not saying it in order to pull rank – I have actually been Minister of Agriculture and I have had to negotiate with the Treasury.

“No British Treasury, even one which is a Conservative one, would give us anything like the £3bn we get now. That’s a fact and the reason is political: no party depends on the farming vote to get elected.”

Lord Deben said his ministerial work meant that he had been directly involved in EU negotiations.

“We export two thirds of our agricultural products to the EU. When you don’t have a special arrangement like Norway and Switzerland, you don’t get free trade,” he said.

“The Canadians for example exclude agriculture from free trade. It’s quite possible to imagine that unlike any other deal we would be able to do it, but the fact is no one else can do it.”

Mr Agnew said that in the early years, the EU “threw” money at farmers.

“But it has been on a journey and you are getting less from it,” he said.

“My message to you is you have had the best of it without a shadow of a doubt.”

Added to this were the penalties for filling in forms incorrectly, and hurdles to jump through with a “complicated” system.

States such as the UK were having to put in more cash as the EU grew, he said, while many countries, particularly in the eurozone, had seen their contributions reduced because their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has reduced, he said.

But a post-Brexit UK would support its farmers, he said, pointing out that around 60 nations around the world support their agriculture. While the EU supported it to 0.68% of its GDP, China supported its forming to about 3% of GDP. The UK’s Farming Minister George Eustice, a pro-Brexiter, said UK agriculture would be supported, and the alternative was too risky for a UK government.

“In short, you’ll get a rural meltdown. Do we really want that?”

He clashed with Lord Deben over the fraught question of Turkey’s possible membership. While Lord Deben was unequivocal in suggesting it would not be able to join, Mr Agnew suggested that the Syrian refugee crisis had put it in a strong negotiating position.

“People say Turkey won’t join,” he said. “They are coming in whether we like it or not.”

But Lord Deben retorted: “Turkey is not, will not and could not join the EU.” It would need a unanimous vote to enter, including Greece and Cyprus which would not support such a move, it doesn’t meet the requirements and had refused to change in any way under the “increasingly dictatorial reign” of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the EU had “very tough” rules on democracy which the country didn’t meet, he said.

The two were also at loggerheads on climate change measures. Lord Deben suggested Mr Agnew shouldn’t “try to blame the EU for the necessary battle against climate change” and in looking for alternatives to fossil fuels for tractors. Britain was a “leader” in the battle, he said.

“The one thing you do have to accept is the world is going in that direction and we are all signed up to ensure that the temperature doesn’t rise by 2C,” he said.

On the labour front, Mr Agnew suggested a return to a work permit system based on the old SAWS arrangement. He added that in things like the EU ban on GM technology, the EU was “looking backward”.

Euston Estate director Andrew Blenkiron, who joined a panel discussion along with Martin Redfearn, agricultural regional director at HSBC Agriculture, said: “I would be extremely concerned about the period of time it would take to establish the (new trade) agreement – it could be three, five 10 years.”

The event was chaired by Stowmarket farmer David Barker.

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