With the vote potentially only four months away, the implications of Brexit for farming was a hot topics at Thursday’s Norfolk Farming Conference. George Eustice came under fire again over Defra’s lack of a Plan B.
The onus is on those campaigning to leave Europe, not the Government, to present a Plan B for what Brexit would look like for farmers, according to Farming Minister George Eustice.
Mr Eustice was repeatedly challenged during his appearance at the Norfolk Farming Conference on Thursday to justify the Government’s refusal to tell farmers how it would address issues like farm support, regulation and trading relationships outside the EU.
Facing accusations farmers were being deliberately left in the dark about the implications of the vote, now potentially just four months away, he insisted the Government had no responsibility to provide information on a position it was not campaigning for.
With a June 23 referendum now widely expected, subject to Prime Minister David Cameron successfully finalising his re-negotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU at end of next week (February 18 and 19), Mr Eustice said there would be ‘three or four months of debate’ ahead of the poll.
“The definition of what staying in or coming out looks like won’t be defined until the campaign starts,” he said.
“It will then be for each side of the campaign to explain the pros and cons of staying in and the pros and cons of coming out.
“In the event the Prime Minister came back and said he was going to recommend leaving the EU, the onus would be on the Government to explain what leaving means.
“But the Prime Minister has made clear his strong preference is to get that deal and campaign for staying.
“So the onus will be on those who are leading the leave campaign at that stage to explain what coming out of the EU might look for farmers.”
Mr Eustice was diplomatic when asked by conference chair Guy Smith if he was impressed with Mr Cameron’s re-negotiation package, saying he supported the re-negotiation.
He added: “The point I am making is the deal is not completed. The Prime Minister himself has said the offer that has been made is not good enough and that is why he is going to Brussels to improve it at the February council.
“He has said this is the base of a deal but there is still further work to be done,” he said.
Responding to Mr Eustice’s comment on a plan B, Norfolk UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew told Farmers Guardian: “If we take him literally it means he is going to step down if there’s a no-vote and allow the people who campaigned to get out of the EU to run the country.
“In reality, he or one of his colleagues will be the Minister of Agriculture the day after an out vote and it’s his job to have a policy for that.”
Mr Agnew said he had heard plans were being drawn up within Defra for a Brexit Plan B, although if this work is taking place, it has not been made public.
The idea of the UK being freed of EU regulation following a vote to leave the union is not as straightforward as it might seem, NFU analysis shows.
The NFU’s chief economist Gail Soutar gave a presentation on the NFU’s report on the outstanding questions for agriculture that need answering by both sides ahead the referendum.
These covered uncertainty around issues like the future of farm support, future trading relationships, regulation and access to labour.
One of the most eye-catching slides highlighted the EU regulations Norway, often held up as an exemplar of how UK agriculture would fare post-EU, still has to comply with in order to trade with the EU.
Despite not being a member, its farmers have to comply with virtually all the major regulations affecting UK farmers, including the Water Frameworks Directive, the Nitrates Directive, sheep EID, pig and poultry welfare rules and food safety standards.
The only one they do not have to comply with is the Habitats Directive because Norway’s domestic rules go further.
Ms Soutar said: “My hypothesis would be the bonfire of legislation we would hope to materialise if we left in the EU but continued to have access to the single market would not materialise."
She also pointed out Norway still pays into the EU at a rate of about two-thirds of the UK’s contribution - £103/head compared with £153/head in the UK - but without being able to influence policy.
The UK might be able to adopt a more science-based approach to regulation outside the EU, she added.
Norfolk UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew described the Norway example as ‘misleading’, pointing out there are a range of different existing trading relations with the EU, some of which do not require the same level of compliance.
“Brazil sends millions of tonnes of GM soya beans to the European Union.
Farmers in the EU are not allowed to grow GM soya beans yet there is no problem there with those standards and Brazil doesn’t make any contribution to the EU budget,” he said.
“I need to put that balance in there otherwise people will think it is status quo or Norway.”
Ms Soutar said the NFU had not yet arrived at a definitive position ahead of the referendum, stressing the union still had ‘challenging questions’ for both sides.
The NFU is expecting to have further results from its impact assessment in March, outlining various different scenarios.
The NFU council will debate the position the union should take ahead of the referendum in mid-April.