Leaving the EU would be ‘leap into unknown’, farmers warned

The Brexit debate at Writtle College on Friday, January 29, which was chaired by National Farmers' U

The Brexit debate at Writtle College on Friday, January 29, which was chaired by National Farmers' Union vice president Guy Smith (centre), with Essex MEP Richard Howitt of Labour putting the 'stay in Europe' case, while Essex MP Bernard Jenkin (standing) of the Conservatives, making the argument for coming out. - Credit: Archant

Leaving the European Union would be a “leap into the unknown” and risk around £3billion in farm subsidy, farmers have been warned.

The Brexit debate at Writtle College on Friday, January 29, which was chaired by National Farmers' U

The Brexit debate at Writtle College on Friday, January 29, which was chaired by National Farmers' Union vice president Guy Smith (centre), with Essex MEP Richard Howitt (left) of Labour putting the 'stay in Europe' case, while Essex MP Bernard Jenkin (standing) of the Conservatives, making the argument for coming out. - Credit: Archant

But East of England MEP Richard Howitt, one of two Essex political heavyweights debating the consequences for farmers if Britain leaves Europe, admitted the European Union (EU) needed reform while urging farmers to support the “in” campaign.

“I don’t ask you to love it,” said Mr Howitt. “I want to reform it and make it better.”

Harwich and North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin made the case for Brexit at last month’s event, hosted by Writtle College and Essex Agricultural Society and chaired by National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president Guy Smith. He pointed to the UK’s net contribution to the EU of nearly £10bn overall, and argued that some of the money saved could support farmers better.

In addition, red tape would be cut, and farmers would not face bans that were arguably not based on solid scientific evidence, such as the recent, and controversial, ban on neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide, which was imposed to protect bee populations, he said.

But Mr Howitt argued that the farm subsidy payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were “an income which is for over half of farmers the difference between profit and loss”. Brexit would put this at risk, he claimed.

“It’s a leap into the unknown if you do it,” he warned. “I struggle to see why there’s any case for any British farmer to want to put the CAP payment at risk.”

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If Britain left Europe and stayed part of the Single Market, in the same way as Norway, it would still face the same red tape and it would have to pay for the privilege, he said. Europe accounted for 73% of Britain’s food export market, he added. The other option, negotiating free trade agreements, would result in Britain being subject to more competition and more imports, he claimed.

Mr Jenkin said it was “entirely natural” farmers would be thinking about the CAP, but argued that farmers would be better off in a UK outside the EU.

“I realise it’s more personal to you, the outcome of this referendum,” he said. “The £2.9bn that farming gets from the EU is extremely important.”

But Britain was paying in £20bn to Europe and getting less than half that back, he said. He wanted to see a support system where more money went into flood defence and science, and asked “what government in their right mind” would use Brexit as an excuse to cut what money was going into the countryside.

At the moment, Britain, which had “lost” influence as a result of being in the EU, was not represented in global organisations, other than as a part of the EU. An exit from Europe would mean that status would be restored on key trade bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, he said.

UK ministers would be held “properly accountable” for what they do for farming policy, he added, and questioned why other countries would not want to trade with Britain, given the big market it represented for them.

“I never wanted to be standing here advocating leaving the EU,” he said. “I turned agains the project over the Maastricht Treaty because it turns the EU into something else.”

On the question immigration, Mr Howitt pointed out that about four in five migrants came from outside the EU, and argued leaving Europe would not have an impact on numbers arriving. An “awful lot” of people working in the fields in the UK were from other countries, he said, and there was the question of recruiting seasonal agricultural labour, he added.

“The whole immigration debate is toxic,” he said. “If you want access to that labour you have to say it and you have to vote for it.”

Mr Jenkin said he was “not against immigration”. “All we are arguing for is we take back control of our immigration policy,” he said.

Mr Howitt described the referendum as “the biggest political decision for our country in a generation”, but said he didn’t “concede the patriotic case is to leave”.

He also urged then NFU and its membership not to “sit on the fence” over the issue.

“I do worry if the NFU doesn’t come to a decision because I think there’s a clear farming case for Britain to remain part of the European Union. By two to one I’m told farmers want to stay in the EU,” he said.

Mr Jenkin felt being part of the EU was tying Britain’s hands. “We can’t negotiate our free trade agreements at the moment. If we had not been in the EU, we would already have a free trade agreement with the USA, we would already have a free trade agreement with China.”