I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Brexit and Agriculture event in York last week organised by the National Farmers’ Union and the European Parliament UK office. It was extremely instructive to talk with farmers, NFU officials and agriculture students about their concerns regarding the Brexit negotiations. Over the course of the event and the discussions that followed, four main themes emerged.
Access to EU labour
Guy Poskitt, who runs Poskitt’s Carrots in east Yorkshire, told us that he could not run his business without non-UK labour. Of the 300 employees working on his farm, between 200 and 250 are not from the UK (despite his attempts to recruit locally). Guy’s concerns about limits to freedom of movement echoes wider concerns across the UK. There was a 29% shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses in September. Only last week, Cornwall Council asked the government for area-specific migration laws, as farmers have reported that crops are rotting in the fields in Cornwall for lack of sufficient workers.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) currently accounts for some 55% of farmers’ income in the UK. Many farms would not be able to survive without CAP funding or support at an equivalent level. A large majority need the reliability of the income to plan for the years ahead. But where is the money going to come from if we leave the EU? Environment Secretary Michael Gove has only committed to matching this funding for farms until the end of this parliament, and he talks about then“restructuring” the subsidies system. Other Brexiters have touted scrapping subsidies altogether. Lack of certainty is already causing anxiety for farmers who need to plan several years in advance.
Free Trade Agreements
Equally uncertain is the future of our relationships with our closest trading partners. Adam Bedford, Regional Director at NFU North East, pointed out that 75% of our agri-food exports go to the European Union. But as it stands the Prime Minister is driving the UK out of the European customs union towards a Canadian-model trade deal with the EU, which does not give unfettered access to the EU market. This would harm our agricultural exports and damage the UK economy as a whole.
Brexit would also threaten the 63 trade agreements we are party to as an EU member state. Replacing them with bilateral agreements will require tough negotiations which could be held up over all kinds of issues, including rules of origin and quotas. New Zealand recently refused to accept the proposed carve up of its EU lamb quota between the UK and the remaining EU, a worrying omen for negotiations to come. The longer and more complex the disputes, the greater the uncertainty for British farmers.
A further threat is that in trade negotiations with countries around the world, the government seeks access for Britain’s financial sector to their markets in exchange for access to our market for their agricultural products, prioritising the City over the countryside.
If we no longer follow the same standards as the rest of Europe, then (even if there are no tariff barriers) our ability to export to the EU will become much more complicated. We could, of course, follow EU standards anyway, but if we have left the EU, we will no longer have a say on them.
But here too, the biggest danger for agriculture is that the government will be in a rush to sign new trade deals with other countries. Liam Fox seems hell-bent on a trade deal with the US, but President Trump and the US Department of Commerce will only get on board with a deal that allows their agricultural products, produced to their lower standards, into UK markets. That means Britain diverging from European food and environmental standards, making any future trade deal with the EU much more difficult. It would entail even stronger border inspections with the EU, including the Irish border. It could even lead to UK sheep farmers having to fly their produce into France (since currently Calais does not have the capacity to deal with third-country imports of animal origin).
These four issues were consistently raised by panelists and audience members at the conference. Their practical concerns should be informing the UK government, but I fear it isn’t.
In addition to worrying economic projections and issues with trade, the audience were also concerned about the impact of Brexit on individual lives. Agriculture students asked about their chances of getting a job after March 2019. Others asked about how we should deal with the mental health problems caused by the insecurity of farming. The role of government should be to make the lives of its citizens less precarious, not add to the uncertainty; we should make it easier to produce fresh food and improve the environment, not put up new barriers.
The further the Tories go with their ideologically-driven hard Brexit, the more difficult it becomes to achieve these goals, the more the voices of farmers are sidelined.
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