In or out of Europe? The question of EU membership will be asked again and again as everyone in the farming industry prepares for a government-led referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU or opt out.
In the second of our two-part series on the EU referendum and what it means for farming, two neighbouring Staffordshire farmers – Mike Madders, a dairy and combinable crops farmer, and Ray Bower, a beef farmer and combinable crops grower – set out their very different opinions on the future of the UK in Europe.
IN: Continued membership of the EU is essential for British agriculture
Mike Madders, Church Farm, Coppenhall, Staffordshire
Dairy farmer and combinable crops grower
Since 1945, Europe has enjoyed 70 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity and the EU has been a major force behind this happy state of affairs.
UK agriculture benefits in three key areas from membership of the EU. We export £12.8bn of agrifood products, and with access to the single market, 73% of our exports go to other EU countries.
The fact we have open access, with one set of regulations, to 500 million of the richest consumers who have ever lived enables us to maximise the value of these exports.
While it is true we import more agricultural products than we export, this ability to trade freely increases our prosperity by allowing us to concentrate on products where we have a competitive advantage.
Our European links also help us when trading with the rest of the world. For instance, along with thousands of other milk producers across the Continent, I am a member of Arla.
Because it is a pan-European co-op, Arla has the scale to be one of the top five dairy companies in the world and therefore has the resource to compete in growing markets such as China.
Through its provision for the free movement of people, the single market gives UK farming businesses access to a much wider pool of people who wish to work in our industry – important to the dairy sector and vital to horticulture.
This provision also gives UK farmers the opportunity to work and study in Europe, not only broadening their horizons but also learning new skills that can be applied to our advantage in our domestic industry.
A further obvious benefit the EU gives UK farmers is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the financial support it provides.
I know in the long-term farming has to stand on its own two feet. But if the UK opts out of the EU and CAP, then British farmers will be left to compete with subsidised European farmers.
The only thing we will end up exporting then would be large chunks of our industry.
UK membership ensures that as crucial policies affecting UK farmers – and the rules which define them – are debated, we have a prominent seat at the table and the ability to influence decisions.
The business communities in countries such as Norway, which only has trading links with the EU, complain they have to abide by all the rules but have no say in setting them.
This is something that will become increasingly important in the future as the critical issues we face, such as the environment, climate change and maintaining economic stability, cannot solely be tackled at a national level but require close international co-operation.
In conclusion I believe these arguments make a very compelling case, particularly from a farming industry perspective, for Britain remaining in the EU and at the heart of this great European project.
OUT: Europe ties us with red tape and no longer protects us from world prices
Ray Bower, Lower Drayton Farm, Penkridge, Staffordshire
Beef farmer and combinable crops grower
In the 1970s I would have voted to stay in. Protectionism meant we had secure markets and prices were better than on the world market. We had headage payments and the EU paid us well to produce food.
Four decades later the world is a very different place.
People worry that outside the EU we would be exposed to global agriculture. But we are already exposed – look at the milk price crisis and the erosion of the sugar beet market. Here in Staffordshire we had two beet factories nearby. Both have gone.
It is down to global changes and oversupply and the EU didn’t help us.
People say Europe is a huge free market on our doorstep and we can buy and sell more easily.
If it is such a big market for us, why as a nation are we less able to feed ourselves?
The UK self-sufficiency figure has gone down from 78% to 60% in the past 30 years. We import more food from Europe than we export.
As a beef farmer it still seems difficult for us to export cattle because of legislation, administration and prices. Yet, beef still floods in from Europe and everywhere else in the world.
When we do export products – for example, lamb to France – it is because there is a big demand for it. That would not change if we were outside Europe, these countries would still choose to buy-in British lamb. Likewise, cow beef would still be in demand. If we left Europe what I farm would not change one iota.
We put billions of pounds in and get billions of pounds less out. What we do get is red tape – swathes of it.
The reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) keep coming and our government calls for simplification but the systems just get more and more complicated.
Take the three-crop rule, for example. Our government has criticised the rule and it cannot do anything to get rid of it. It is a crazy law. I am not pushing to have one great big area of one type of crop. A proper rotation is always going to be better than that, but for some this three-crop rule is unworkable red tape.
The complexity of the CAP reform deal and the long negotiations meant the single farm payment computer system cost hundreds of millions of pounds to set up to handle it.
What a waste. That money would have been better spent on producing food than a computer system that, frankly, could not cope.
I believe some form of support would still come from our own governments if we were no longer in the EU. Scotland and Wales will still look after their farms because they recognise the value of maintaining a food supply.
Westminster would have to do the same. The government has pledged to improve our self-sufficiency so would invest to maintain a secure food supply.
The difference is, it would be cheaper. We would save money from the lack of administration of the CAP so it would cost the taxpayer less to back home-grown food.
Other nations have had to survive. New Zealand is out in the middle of nowhere, with a small population, and it manages to have a thriving industry.
New Zealand has done so by pushing its brands. People like our brands on a global scale; we need to sell ourselves with stronger branding and labelling to the growing global markets and get in quickly.
NFU calls for debate
The NFU is pushing to open up the debate on Britain’s future role in the European Union ahead of a government-led referendum. The vote could take place as early as next spring and the union has set out a list of key facts and questions affecting both sides in a report.
In: Key questions facing farming if the UK voted yes:
– What will Westminster do to ensure the EU Commission has a strategy to make farming more productive and globally competitive?
– How would it ensure the CAP remains a common policy and that UK farmers have a level playing field to compete on?
– How is the UK going to achieve better regulation?
– How is the UK going to ensure all decisions are based on science?
Out: Key questions facing farming if the UK voted no:
– Would the UK have access to the European market, and under what conditions?
– What would a future British agricultural policy look like, particularly for direct support?
– If the UK continues to have access to the EU’s single market, but takes a different approach on support for farmers, how will fair competition be ensured?
– Would Britain be more or less open to imports?
– What immigration policy would the government pursue and how would it affect the UK’s access to labour?