Farming Opinion: British farmers need to ask searching questions on EU

St Osyth Farmer Guy Smith.

St Osyth Farmer Guy Smith. - Credit: Archant

I have the pleasure of farming in the parliamentary constituency of Clacton on sea, writes Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union

People can be very rude about Clacton with jokes about the ‘Happy 30th Birthday Grandma’ signs that get put up in the main roundabout as you enter the town. But despite all this sneering from outsiders, I have a real soft spot for my home town. It has an honest, straight talking unpretentiousness. You know where you are with Clactonites and they not backward in coming forward. So it was with great bemusement to me to see Clacton become the focus of the political world in September as it hosted a rather important by-election. Clacton simply revelled in this new found importance. And true to form it sent shock waves through the political establishment by overwhelmingly returning big Doug Carswell as the UKs one and only UKIP MP. We love being different and unique us Clactonites.

One likes to think Clacton will be to the future of political map of the UK in the same way Florence drove the Italian Renaissance.

Waking up to find myself now living and farming in the first UKIP constituency tends to focus the mind on the possibility of leaving the EU and running a farm business without the CAP. I’m not necessarily against the prospect but I’m worryingly short of detail as to what the exact plans are. Would we retain support payments and would there be some sort of UK Cross compliance? Would we become like Norway or Switzerland and join EFTA which might mean we still get all or some of the red tape? What would the import/export regime in food and drink be with the rest of the world? More generally, it strikes me that in the run up to the General Election next May, British farmers will need to ask searching questions of all parties as to how a change in our relationship with the EU would affect agriculture. When it comes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), British politicians of all persuasions seem keener to tell us what they would scrap rather than what they would put in its place. We need to interrogate the agricultural policies in the manifestos to make sure we aren’t being fobbed off with half baked whimsy that if implemented wouldn’t actually hold water.

The CAP is the most important policy in the European Union (EU). It takes over 40% of its budget. Love it or loathe it, it remains an important part of the average East Anglian farms cash flow. In a year like this one with the prospect of some very low commodity prices, for most farms their CAP payments will represent their only profit. So politicians must realise when they are talking CAP reform they are drawing up plans that affect our livelihoods as farmers and our ability to run businesses in the rural economy. CAP reform is not something to be undertaken lightly. So when I hear Boris Jonson getting cheap applause at the Tory Party conference with throw away remarks about scrapping the CAP I tend to think he is playing a little fast and loose with what is our main manufacturing industry. British farmers are not frightened of the prospect of farming in a world where there are no subsidies. What we are wary of is an unlevel playing field where Brutish farmers are not supported to the same extent as our competitors abroad. That will simply lead to the export of the farming industry abroad where standards are not as high.