Farmer in combine

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A few weeks ago the head of JCB, Lord Anthony Bamford, wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph headlined “If the EU won’t change radically, Britain should leave”.

In it he expressed his frustration that the EU he had voted to join in the 1975 referendum was very different to what we have now. “Back then… it was a major trading opportunity giving us extra muscle on the world stage,” he said. But it has become a union to which the price of our membership “has simply become too high”.

“The EU has intruded more and more into areas that should be the preserve of national governments,” he added. “The regulatory environment has become less business friendly.”

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Looking forward, he was concerned that while we already have insufficient control over our own affairs we might have less in future. Similarly, over-regulation might become even more onerous.

“It is clear to me,” he said, “that either the EU has to change, or Britain’s relationship with the EU has to change. If the government fails to secure truly radical reform, I will have no other choice but to vote [in the forthcoming referendum] to leave.”

David Richardson
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.

Since that was published, David Cameron has clarified his demands as he attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU.

First, he seeks to protect the single market for Britain and others outside the eurozone. In other words, he wants binding rules that guarantee fairness between member states. Second, he wants competitiveness to be a theme running through EU policies and that includes reducing burdensome regulations.

Third, he rejects ever-closer union with other member states, but instead wants to bolster the responsibilities of national governments.

And fourth, in response to the immigration crisis, he calls for the abuses of the right to free movement across the EU to be tackled and for Britain to be able to control migration from the union.

Whether such demands are enough to satisfy Lord Bamford, I cannot say. But what has been well publicised is that a significant number of his fellow Conservative peers and MPs are disappointed at what they see as the timidity of the PM’s demands. My suspicion is that such feelings are shared by many across the country.

If you judge by the number of Ukip signs in fields and on farm gates, you could be forgiven for thinking most of our industry wants out. But Ukip is not in power. The Conservatives are – just. And we need to ask ourselves if their current policy towards agriculture provides enough confidence for farmers to entrust them alone with our future. Or whether, despite the multiple problems posed by the EU, we would be better off in than out?

Consider the agreement to cut another 30% from Defra’s budget during this parliament. The department lost 30% of its funding under the coalition government, which means that by 2020 its viability will be half what it was five years ago.

A few Norfolk farmers had dinner recently with a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee. We asked if agriculture was a government priority. “Afraid not,” he replied. “You don’t really register on the radar.”

Across the EU there are enough farmers to matter – even if policies towards us are sometimes misguided.