The NFU is preparing to take a public stance on whether UK farmers would be better off in or out of the European Union – warning that a British exit would be potentially catastrophic for producers.
NFU economists are examining the likely effect on agriculture if the UK leaves the EU following the proposed in-out referendum. Their findings will be used to inform an internal debate before the NFU announces its official stance within the next three months.
NFU president Meurig Raymond (pictured) said it was irresponsible of the government to not have a plan in place should the UK leave the EU. “The vote is coming closer and farmers want to know what guarantees there are to underwrite their support in these very volatile times,” he added.
The NFU has already produced a document examining the UK’s relationship with the EU when it came to farming. But Mr Raymond said the union’s 48,000 members remained “fairly divided” over whether farmers would be better off outside the EU.
Over the next two months, NFU economists would “put some flesh on the bones” of the document and examine the consequences of a British exit – including the effect on access to the EU single market and how much support farming would need to remain competitive.
The NFU believed in competition, market orientation and a level playing field, said Mr Raymond. But it would be catastrophic for British farmers outside the EU to be denied support while farmers inside the EU continued to receive the equivalent of £175-£200/ha.
“If that support was denied to UK farming, it could have a catastrophic effect on farm incomes and the structure of UK farming,” said Mr Raymond. “Those questions need answering. Through the negotiation process there are some big issues.”
Speaking about the effects of Britain leaving the EU, Mr Raymond said: “We need to do that work in-house. We will then have a debate internally – we will have it in the counties – and I am pretty convinced that come March/April, the NFU will come out with its firm policy – in or out.”
Mr Raymond was speaking at a debate hosted by the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists in London on Tuesday (12 January). Chaired by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, the event saw former Defra secretary Owen Paterson argue the case for the UK leaving the EU.
“All this scare stuff is really not valid,” Mr Paterson told the audience. “We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We have a £70bn-plus deficit with these countries – they want to carry on working with us.”
Mr Paterson dismissed suggestions that the government would reduce subsidies overnight if the UK left the EU. He added: “It would be idiotic of any government to get ahead of the game and slash support given the state of the market.”
It was also wrong to talk about an exit only in terms of money, said Mr Paterson. Farmers had to look British taxpayers in the eye and explain what they were getting for their money. “Get positive – if this descends into one long bleat about subsidy, you will lose public sympathy.”
Mr Raymond responded by saying farmers needed to know how the UK government would support farming in the event of an exit. “This is not about us arguing about money,” said Mr Raymond. “It is about us remaining competitive.”