Opinion: Don’t be embarrassed, let’s talk Europe…

Do you think we should be in or out of Europe? This is the sort of “politics and religion” question that has traditionally been deemed unfit for polite company.

Rooms empty and friends disappear if someone casually brings the subject up. So there was something of a nervous titter in the audience when it was put to speakers at the recent Northern Farming Conference.

As may have been expected, the keynote speaker, Defra secretary Liz Truss, played it with a very straight bat along the official party line that we should be in a reformed Europe in the way the prime minister will negotiate.

“Without such support, I cannot see hill farming surviving except as a hobby for strange rich people”

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Last year the audience might have let the matter go at that, but this year that didn’t happen. Another questioner argued that the “nuclear option” of leaving the EU would severely damage British agriculture by leaving the industry stranded between heavily subsidised blocks in the EU and the USA.

He didn’t think the offer of a referendum on leaving should have been made – a view I heard elsewhere in the room – and requested a change of policy.

The points on the potential risks of a British exit from the EU were well made. The entire UK livestock sector struggles to make any profit at all as it is.

The main benefit put forward by enthusiasts seems to be that of being free of EU red tape. Yet, who can doubt either Defra’s ability to replace this with some British red tape of our own or the continuing need to comply with EU regulations anyway in order to sell into that important market.

The Northern Farming Conference heard speakers advising that EU subsidies for the lowlands are likely to reduce in future years in any event and that it would be a case of survival of the fittest. If there was a British exit, it is hard to imagine that an English parliament would choose to subsidise lowland farmers at all, especially in the context of competing demands from the health service and everything else.

The extent of any potential future support for the hills on environmental grounds is unclear. Without such support, I cannot see hill farming surviving except as a hobby for strange, rich people who don’t need an income but would still like a hard life, along with a few deluded back-to-nature hermits.

It is clear that a UK exit would have a massive effect on UK farming and I am not sure that the “grumpy tendency” among farmers have recognised the full potential implications.

On the flip side, there would be opportunities, in the same way that burning down a house gives an opportunity to build a new one. Most people would probably prefer to change things in a managed way, rather than following a disaster.

Yet, it seems to me that ignoring the issue will not make it go away. The attitude that the question should not be asked in case the people give the wrong answer is unlikely to satisfy anyone. Indeed, it seems more likely to galvanise momentum for those who want to be out of Europe at any cost. 

Businesses that ignore their customers do not tend to prosper in the long run. Neither do organisations like governments or the EU. 

Sooner or later, whatever the outcome of the next election, the arguments on the UK’s EU membership will have to be made and a conclusion arrived at.

It is better that this is done on a planned and informed basis, unsettling though this will be.

Elizabeth Elder

Elizabeth and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland

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