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Eustice interview - Farming Minister seeks to reassure industry over Brexit

Farming Minister George Eustice has outlined his thoughts on the historic vote to leave the EU and sought to reassure farmers about the implications.

Farming Minister George Eustice has sought to assure farmers they have nothing to fear from Brexit, which he insisted would be managed by the Government in a calm and considered manner.


The shock vote to leave the EU has sparked a degree of panic in the market, resulting in a significant fall in the value of sterling on Friday, as investors and businesses fear a period of huge uncertainty ahead.


For farmers, while many backed Brexit in order to escape the grip of Brussels regulation, the decision has generated concern over issues like farm support, trade and access to seasonal labour.


In an interview with Farmers Guardian, Mr Eustice hailed the ‘fantastic result’ and stressed how the Government would now take its time to negotiate the right deal for the country.


The Cornish MP and leading Brexit campaigner said: “I genuinely believe the European Union and the idea of this pan-European legal system to try and govern everything to do with our agriculture is fundamentally flawed.


Exhilarating time


“So I am certain this is the right decision for our country and our farmers. It is a big decision and there is a lot of work to do in the months ahead.


“I recognise there is a lot to sort out and lot of new arrangements to put in place to replace what we have now and lots of discussion to have with our European partners on a new UK-EU partnership.


“So I am really excited about it and think it is a really exhilarating time to be at Defra.”


While the Commission has already urged the UK to agree its exit policy ‘as soon as possible’, Mr Eustice echoed the words of caution Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the timescale.


Mr Eustice said he envisaged a the Government securing political agreement on the big issues like a free trade deal before triggering the two-year exit period under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, during which the finer details would be ‘mopped up’.


“You wouldn’t then cause any nervousness in the markets by triggering a two-year process with no guaranteed output at the end of it,” he said.


“It is in everyone’s interest to do it smoothly and in a way that doesn’t frighten the horses in terms of the markets.”


Free Trade Agreement


He stressed the likes of Mr Johnson and Mr Gove were committed to a Free Trade Agreement that would see trade continue without tariffs, a key issue for many farmers.


But the Farming Minister refuted the suggestion an FTA would come at the cost of the continuation of free movement of people and strict compliance with EU regulation.


He insisted an FTA could be agreed where the UK was able to control permanent migration but a ‘liberal approach’ was adopted for seasonal and short-term labour and travel around the EU by British citizens.


“They (Johnson and Gove) have both been pretty clear they want a free trade agreement but have also been clear that would not mean a free-for- all in terms of free movement of people,” he said.


He said the UK would negotiate on what common standards must apply to that trade, for example, food safety requirements, including maximum pesticide residue limits on food and animal welfare standards.


“It is not quite true to say you would still have these EU regulations.


You would have to agree these common standards for trade both ways with the EU Commission but it wouldn’t be things like the width of your gate and we would be able to get rid of the whole raft of cross compliance rules.”


He stressed the Government was a big believer in free trade but refuted the suggestion this could in a removal of tariff protection that would expose the UK farming industry to cheaper lower welfare imports.


“We believe in free trade and we are constantly looking into new export opportunities,” he said..


“But equally we are very clear in free trade agreements we want animal welfare standards to be reflected, so we should not just expose our producers to competition from livestock producers that have lower welfare standards. We will have a sensible proportionate approach.”


CAP support


Mr Eustice reiterated the Leave campaign’s pledge to maintain current CAP spending up to 2020, even if the UK leaves the EU before then and has to fund it from the UK exchequer.


He acknowledged he had stated during the campaign funding could be maintained or increased at current levels beyond 2020 but stressed the current Government could not make funding pledges beyond 2020 as there would be a General Election before then.


“But that doesn’t mean there won’t be anything beyond that,” he added.


He said the Government would work with the industry to come up with a new, more sensible and workable UK agricultural policy that delivered for farmers and the taxpayer.


“We have not got to do it overnight. This is going to be an evolution rather than a revolution,” he said.


Farmer support


He expressed delight at the way farmers had backed the Brexit campaign, despite the prevailing assumption because of ‘nervousness’ about trade and support most would support staying in.


He predicted as many as 60 per cent of farmers could have backed Brexit.


“They (the Remain campaign) underestimated the degree of frustration farmers feel at the moment. I can genuinely say a lot of the problems we have had with late payments are down to the auditing requirements and the checking we have to do.


“Endlessly, we have dysfunctional European law which is the root cause of many of our problems.


“There was a craving from farmers for something less bureaucratic and less clunky than we had to put up with in the EU.”


He acknowledged there would be bridges to build and relationships to heal both between the two siders at home and in Europe but said, with the campaign over, the process was already beginning.


“Now we are on the other side, you are already seeing a much more conciliatory tone and much more talk about partnerships,” he said.


“Now we are past the campaign, we will do all we can to take the heat out of the issue, reassure people and calm everyone down because all of these things are eminently fixable and negotiable and we need people to approach it in the right frame of mind.”

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