May on Brexit: what will it mean for farmers?

Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House in London where she outlined her plans for Br

Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House in London where she outlined her plans for Brexit, saying that she does not want an outcome which leaves the UK "half in, half out" of the European Union. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday January 17, 2017. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire - Credit: PA

This week, Prime Minister Theresa May gave her landmark speech on Brexit in which she made clear that the UK would not be seeking to be in the European Union single market, or full membership of the customs union. At the same time, the UK will control the number of people coming to Britain from the EU. But what will this mean to UK and East Anglian farmers? SARAH CHAMBERS reports.

Farmers’ leaders are continuing to press for the “best possible” access to trade with Europe, and access to a competent and reliable workforce following Prime Minister Theresa May’s landmark Brexit speech on Tuesday.

Theresa May gave a broad-brush description of her goals in her landmark speech at Lancaster House in London, controversially confirming Britain will leave the European single market when it quits the European Union.

She said that she wanted to remain part of a customs agreement with the remaining 27 EU states but had an “open mind” over whether this would be through associate membership or through some other arrangement.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) council said the British food production sector needed “the best possible” access to trade with Europe, access to a competent and reliable workforce, a government commitment to agriculture, and an assurance that any changes to trading relationships or farm policy should be subject to a period of transition.

The Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) urged a move away from the arguments “that have been a hangover of the referendum”, but said it was “cautious” about the consequences of new trade deals with other countries and markets.

The NFU pointed out that 72% of agricultural exports go to the EU with some sectors heavily dependent on trade with the rest of Europe. For example, of £300m UK lamb exports, £290m came from sales to Europe, and 78% of wheat and barley exports went to the EU.

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“Whilst clarity from the Prime Minister has been needed, NFU council still has legitimate and important concerns,” the NFU council said. “The Prime Minister has ruled out the UK’s continuing participation in the European Single Market or the EU Customs Union and instead has stated her intention to pursue a free trade agreement with the EU.

“We hope the prime minister’s ambition can be achieved, but as we know these kind of deals normally take years to conclude and do not cover all products.

“If a quick and comprehensive deal cannot be achieved it would be absolutely vital that there are appropriate phased arrangements to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge to allow Britain’s farmers to adapt.”

The NFU is now seeking urgent talks with the government about how a post-Brexit Britain could work for Britain’s food production and seeking detailed commitments on a transition period.

CLA East director Ben Underwood said the Brexit scenario the prime minister had set out was a “dramatic change” and would have a major impact on UK farming.

“Our aim must be to retain tariff free access for all products and all parts of the agri-food supply chain. We will continue to provide whatever support we can to help in securing this vital outcome.

“We are more cautious about the consequences of new trade deals with other countries and markets. We understand and support the principle that post-Brexit, the Government will pursue a range of trade agreements that can bring benefits to the UK economy as a whole.”

He echoed the NFU’s call to avoid economic cliff edges and said phasing in the implementation of such change would be “critical” to the livelihoods of farmers and the future of rural communities in Britain.

Edward Barker, associate at East Anglian land agents Cheffins, said there were mixed reactions in the farming sector on the announcement about leaving the single market.

“On the one hand it is negative as inputs will be going up in price, such as fertiliser, feed, fuel and machinery. However, on the flip side this could indeed bring about opportunities for farmers and agriculture as a whole,” he said.

“The NFU commissioned research suggested that in such a scenario UK farmers would see some benefit from raised food prices, as it would be harder to import products. However, only time will tell if this is the case.”