Farming opinion: Why we need commitments from our politicians on the Brexit debate

Ben Underwood with the CLA's Leave or Remain report.

Ben Underwood with the CLA's Leave or Remain report. - Credit: Archant

The importance of the decision facing the British public on 23 June in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) cannot be overstated, writes CLA East Regional Director Ben Underwood.

The economic and political structures of the UK are intertwined with the EU and this is particularly the case for those that live and work in the countryside.

The EU is an important market for our products; it provides vital direct financial support to farmers and land managers; and workers from the EU are critical to our agricultural labour force. For more than 40 years the EU has provided the regulatory framework that governs the environment, trading relationships and the way business operates, and is the basis of significant investment decisions.

Leave campaigners are asking voters to embrace “the chance of a generation” for the UK to free itself from an outdated institution that faces fundamental crises and is increasingly unable to help UK business exploit opportunities in global markets. Remain campaigners stress the importance of the EU as a stabilising entity in an uncertain world and that the UK has the opportunity to shape the EU’s future.

Whether we stay or go our own way, the CLA is very clear in its view that Government must offer immediate commitments to farmers and rural businesses that they are equally prepared for either scenario.

With every argument for or against the UK’s membership of the EU being hotly contested it is difficult to appreciate what is actually going to be the consequences of the public’s decision. However, what is without doubt is Suffolk’s and Essex’s farm businesses and rural communities will face an uncertain future if Ministers fail to instigate carefully considered, long-term plans upon the result of the referendum.

To campaign or govern without giving answers on how the rural economy will be sustained in the future undermines confidence and gives concern as to the future security of the rural economy.

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Published earlier this week, our report on the Referendum, ‘Leave or Remain: The decisions politicians must make to support the rural economy’ seeks to push decision makers to confirm whether they are prepared for all eventualities. If the UK votes to leave, the uncertainties for farming and other rural businesses are immediate and need to be addressed swiftly; if we vote to remain, there are still critical commitments that Ministers will need to make before the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget is agreed in 2020.

It poses the critical question for Ministers about whether they are prepared for all eventualities. It also provides our members with information on the processes and decisions leading up to the referendum and what might happen afterwards.

The report stresses the vital role of current EU programmes in making it possible for farmers, land managers and rural businesses to undertake activities that deliver environmental goods and outcomes that we all benefit from. In today’s current financial climate, support for farming businesses is absolutely vital with an increasingly volatile world market and the on-going demand for cheaper food. As a result, it is imperative these programmes, or equivalent measures, which would benefit from reforms the CLA has consistently advocated, must continue whether the UK is inside or outside the EU.

There is no expectation that the next CAP agreement will mirror the current framework in terms of structure, size or objectives if the UK decides to remain part of the EU. However, the CLA will continue to make the case for a policy that works. If we resign membership of the EU there are two major policy decisions to be made – the first is will the rural economy continue to receive the current level of support from either the CAP or UK Government through to the end of 2020 to respect the commitments made for the current CAP period (2014-2020)? The second is how will the Governments of the UK develop a structure of support for farming, other rural businesses and the environment?

The impact of a reduction in funding for the rural economy regardless of the result should not be underestimated. If economic support to the rural economy declines, it could lead to a reduction in private sector investment, lower tax revenues and loss of jobs.

Above all, the report lays bare the uncertainty that all those businesses in the rural and associated sectors are faced with as we head towards a historic moment in determining the UK’s future. Whatever the result, one thing is certain: the CLA will continue to make the case for improvements to ensure that EU and UK policy delivers for our rural economy both now and in the future.