The Prime Minister’s planned EU referendum has prompted calls for answers on some of the big issues affecting farmers, such as regulation, CAP support and market access.
Industry leaders expressed the need for clarity about the implications for farmers of David Cameron’s flagship European policy, after the Prime Minister formally unveiled plans for an in-out referendum.
Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech laying out the new Government’s legislative plans for the year ahead included an EU Referendum Bill.
Mr Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU before putting it to a public vote on whether the UK should remain in or leave Europe. The referendum will take place by the end of 2017 but there is growing speculation it could happen as early as next year.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron said: “We have seen treaty after treaty pass through this House. The EU has changed a great deal since 1975, and it is time the British people once again had their say. We have a very clear strategy of renegotiation, reform and referendum.”
He is already embarking on a tour of European capitals to persuade other EU leaders to back his plans for reform.
With significant implications farmers, including the way the industry is regulated, the future of agricultural support and access to key markets, farm leaders have called for clarity on what the process might mean for farmers.
CLA President Henry Robinson said it was ‘vital the Government demonstrates that all eventualities are being fully planned for’.
“This must include commitments to maintain investment, at the levels currently made by the EU, in agriculture and rural economic development,” he said.
“The UK’s membership of the EU impacts directly on hundreds of thousands of rural businesses and millions of jobs and Ministers have a vital role to play in reducing uncertainty that could hamper investment up to and beyond the referendum.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “We know that there are strong views on both sides and the NFU is keen to play its part in the debate on the facts around EU membership and agriculture.
“We will need more clarity on what life inside and outside the EU will mean for British farmers.”
He said the NFU would be producing detailed analysis of the pros and cons of EU membership, taking into account the terms of the renegotiation process.
NFU head of government and parliamentary affairs Matt Ware said the re-negotiation presented an opportunity to move away from the tendency of the UK to gold-plate EU legislation.
But he said the referendum presented potential concerns over the future of farm support and access to EU workers, particularly for horticulture businesses.
He added: “We also want an in-depth factual debate on the true value of trade both ways, imports and exports, and the cost of what we would have to do instead.”
Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said the TFA needed more information about the implications of leaving the EU before taking a position on the referendum.
“The Government needs to provide a clear position on what it will do to replace the beneficial aspects of EU membership including the support available through CAP for both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 activities, our favoured-nation trading status and our negotiating power as a trading nation within the WTO,” he said.
Both Welsh farming unions have already voiced their support for remaining in Europe. In its election manifesto, the Farmers Union of Wales said it look to the UK Government to ‘support membership of the EU while working to reduce the bureaucratic burdens and restrictions associated with EU Regulations’.
NFU Cymru president Stephen James said: “We want to stay in Europe because Welsh farmers on CAP payments and access to the single market.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond welcomed the stability in the taxation system stemming from the announcement there will be no increases in income tax or national insurance for the next five years.
“Combined with the five year tax averaging announcement in the last budget, this will help many farmers to manage their cash flow,” he said.
CLA president Henry Robinson also welcomed the commitment in law to lock income, value added or national insurance taxation.
“However this commitment must extend further into all business and property taxes that affect rural businesses, many of which are run as sole traders or partnerships. We will be making the case for reducing the burden of taxation so as to allow rural businesses more scope to invest and create jobs,” he said.
Mr Robinson called on the Government to provide ‘certainty and appropriate incentives to landowners that are considering bringing forward land for affordable housing’, following the inclusion of a Housing Bill.
He said: “We need more homes across our rural communities. It is vital that we meet the housing challenge in a way that is sustainable and contributes to the unique character of our countryside.”
“This means careful planning and effective community engagement. We are concerned that the Government’s desire to limit the amount of housing brought forward on greenfield land to 10 per cent could create difficulties in locating appropriate housing developments in rural areas.
“We remain convinced that the decision should be specific to the area involved and not prescribed by national rules.
He expressed concern proposals to extend Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants could deter many landowners from making an investment in much needed affordable housing developments.
“It is vital that the exemption from right to buy from tenanted properties in small rural settlements and national parks is maintained,” he said.
This is designed to support small businesses and job creation. Mr Robinson welcomed the Bill but said it must benefit rural businesses as well as those based in towns and cities.
Mr Raymond said: “The NFU’s lobbying on better reducing ‘red tape’ has been recognised in the proposed Enterprise Bill and we hope that we can speedily implement recommendations on better regulation for food and farming from the Macdonald report.”
Mr Robinson said landowners needed clarity and certainty around when and where wind power developments are appropriate. “In recent years the debate on wind farms has left landowners confused and far less likely to consider bringing forward developments,” he said.
Mr Raymond said: “A plan to increase energy security will be welcome, but we must make sure this is from diverse energy sources.
“Land-based renewable energy has a key part to play in managing our energy security and there is a great appetite for this in agriculture – farmers already contributes thousands of megawatts of power collectively.”