Opinion: British farmers are better in the EU than out

Banner supporting EU referendum with Houses of Parliament in the background

© Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock

Prime Minister David Cameron has yet to decide whether the UK will face an in/out EU referendum this year, but former Defra secretary Owen Paterson has already made up his mind on the issue. British farmers would be “better off out”, he says.

Given the density of Ukip posters to be seen in farmers’ fields during national elections, it’s clear that many farmers agree. I think they are mistaken.

It is easy to take the CAP for granted, but the current delays in BPS payments and the difficulties this is causing is a timely reminder of just how reliant most farmers are on this policy for their livelihoods.

Tens of thousands of British farms (including my own) are faced with a potentially disastrous period of financial uncertainty due to various Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff policy dithering or administrative cock-ups (rather than Brussels’ incompetence) in deciding how £3.5bn in decoupled CAP payments should be paid out.

With farmgate commodity prices at such low levels, and UK farm borrowing already 8% up on a year ago (to a record total of nearly £17bn), this delay in BPS payments could not possibly have come at a worst time.

But every cloud has a silver lining and in this case it is that this shambles reminds us of where UK farming would be if farm policy were ever repatriated to the UK.

The RPA alone has been fined £640m by Brussels for incompetent administration of the CAP over the past 10 years, which equates to £2.70 in fines for every £100 paid out to English farmers.

But the importance of the EU to British farmers goes far beyond the CAP. The single market provided by the EU is a great opportunity for farmers across all 27 member states to farm on equal terms without fear of seeing their production undercut by unilateral subsidies, grants or import tariffs.

Stephen Carr farms an 800ha sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part of the farm is converted to organic status and subject to a Higher Level Stewardship agreement.

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British pig farmers don’t need reminding of their trading experience between 1 January 1999, when the UK government imposed a unilateral ban on the use of sow stalls, and 1 January 2013, when the European Parliament introduced a similar EU-wide ban. UK production collapsed in the face of cheap EU pork imports, meaning that the UK ban achieved little except to export the use of sow stalls to continental Europe.

Contrast this with the extraordinary achievement within the past three years of an EU-wide ban on the use of “barren” battery cages. Certainly, even with legislation passed in the European Parliament, there have been difficulties in getting compliance across all member states, but with the power to impose fines, the EU Commission has made steady progress. Could this ever have been achieved by 27 separate national governments negotiating separate bilateral multinational trade agreements? Would it have happened at all without the political infrastructure provided by the much-derided European Parliament and the clear policy direction provided by the equally pilloried EU Commission?

Of course, like any farmer, I find myself cursing the EU on a daily basis. If it’s not the latest cross-compliance inspection for my arable field margin widths or sheep EID tags that are giving me a headache then it’s the seemingly endless river of new environmental regulations and restrictions that flow from Brussels. But we should not let those regular minor irritants confuse us into thinking that farming administered solely from our national governments or regional assemblies would be an improvement or would mean a lesser regulatory burden.

If 2016 does produce an in/out referendum on the EU, it could prove to be a momentous year for UK agriculture. Farming is likely to prove central to the debate, so let’s hope farmer-based organisations such as the NFU and CLA can find a little more political courage than they seem to have demonstrated so far and nail their colours firmly to the “in” camp.