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Farming's big Brexit decision - the key issues

The outcome of Thursday’s (June 23) EU Referendum vote has huge implications for farmers. Alistair Driver summarises the big dilemmas.

Farmers, as much as any sector of society, have an enormous amount to gain or lose on the outcome of next week’s EU Referendum vote.


We have now heard all the arguments for and against. So what are the decisive issues as far as the farming vote is concerned?


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Trade implications

What is at stake?


  • The UK currently has free access, without tariffs or border controls, to an EU market of 500 million people
  • UK food, drink and animal feed exports to the EU were worth £10.7bn in 2014, 60 per cent of the total
  • £26.5bn of imports came the other way
  • The EU has negotiated preferential trade agreements with 48 countries and is in negotiations with a further 84

What they say

Prime Minister David Cameron, for Remain

“British farmers and food producers rely on the single market. It gives them access to 500m consumers, to whom they can sell their goods on an open, unrestricted basis.

“Leaving the single market and relying on World Trade Organisation rules would bring extra costs of £240m per year for British beef exports and £90m to lamb exports.”


Farming Minister George Eustice, for Leave

“We have a trade deficit with the EU of about £60bn a year. It is not in their interests to pull up the drawbridge. Rolling forward some sort of arrangement akin to the existing single market is the easy bit to do.”


FG verdict

The UK would leave the market, but might indeed be possible to negotiate market access to the EU, broadly along the lines of what we have in place now.

But serious questions remain unanswered.

How quickly could new arrangements be put in place? The longer it takes, the greater the likely disruption.

How far, in a political world driven by self interest, would the rest of the EU really go to grant the UK favourable terms?



Could the UK match the EU’s access to other global markets?

And what would the UK’s approach to tariffs be – a greater emphasis on free trade could place import pressure on domestic production.

Then there is the great trade trade-off – the greater the market access, the more the likely need for compliance with EU rules.

The trade situation might not be the disaster, in time, Remain is claiming. But it is difficult to imagine more favourable conditions than we have now.


Farm support

What is at stake?


  • UK farmers receive more than £3 billion a year under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
  • In 2015, CAP support accounted for three-quarters of UK farm income
  • But the current CAP has been widely criticised for its complexity


What they say

David Cameron:

“If Britain votes to leave, we would have to put in place an agricultural support system. If you look at what Jeremy Corbyn offers, are you really certain, if the alternatives get in, you are going to have the sort of support in the countryside we have today?”

George Eustice:

“The UK Government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support, or perhaps even more, as they get now. The Prime Minister has made this clear and I agree with him.”

Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, for Leave:

“We would target the money in a much more effective manner.”


AHDB chairman Sir Peter Kendall, Farmers For In:

“Leave campaigners have said it is inconceivable any UK Government would drastically cut support. But it is Government policy, set by Labour and endorsed by the Coalition in 2011, to abolish direct payments in 2020.”


NFU president Meurig Raymond:

“The UK’s EU competitors are likely to receive in the region of £70-80/acre in future years. We need that money to remain competitive.


FG verdict

While support is unlikely to be slashed post-Brexit, it is difficult to make a credible case for it to be sustained at current levels, especially over the longer term.

Some savings will be made by leaving the EU, but the historical position of the UK Government and harsh economic reality suggests other spending areas will take priority. The EU CAP budget will, of course, also be under considerable strain.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to develop a new, more efficient, effective and targeted UK agricultural policy – or rather four national ones – with whatever money is available, is an attractive proposition.



What is at stake?

A huge proportion of the legislation affecting UK farmers stem from Brussels, including:


  • Nitrates Directive
  • Water Framework Directive
  • Sheep Electronic Identification
  • Welfare of Laying Hens
  • Sow tether and sow stall ban
  • Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products
  • Habitats Directive

What they say

George Eustice:

“Some 80 per cent of legislation affecting Defra comes directly from the EU. It is all pervasive.


"If we vote to leave and take control, there would be no such thing as EU law.”


Owen Paterson:

“The glyphosate situation is a nonsense. Outside the EU, we can embrace the innovation principle and grow GM crops and bring back neonicotinoids.”

Former Farming Minister Sir Jim Paice, for Remain:

“This idea of regulatory freedom is an illusion. Where we did get duty-free access, we would still be required to meet EU standards and regulations.


"And there is no evidence to argue outside the EU our regulations would be less of a problem.”

Former Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon, for Remain:

“The UK Treasury would be just as keen on auditing spending and there have been plenty examples of the UK gold-plating EU regulation.”


FG verdict

Freeing ourselves from the grip of EU regulation is one of the biggest carrots dangled by Brexit campaigners.

There would undoubtedly be some advantages, but the caveats are numerous.

The biggest, of course, is the likely need to comply with EU regulation to trade with the EU. Sheep farmers, for example, would be unlikely to find themselves free of EID, while trade issues would need to be addressed when it comes to authorising chemicals and crops banned in the EU.

And, of course, there would be no guarantees future UK Governments would be any more sympathetic to farming than the EU is today.

Other key Brexit questions

  • Would UK farmers and growers have the same access to essential EU labour?
  • Would the UK’s ability to work with other member states on joint animal disease control and surveillance strategies be compromised?
  • Would the ability of the UK agri-science sector to collaborate in Europe and benefit from joint EU funding be affected?
  • Would Brexit pave the way for a second Scottish independence referendum?
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