November 13, 2015
The looming threat of ‘Brexit’ – Britain leaving the European Union – was the unavoidable theme of EurActiv’s first roundtable event on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to be held in the UK.
A packed-out gathering of EU-interested stakeholders in Westminster on 5 November joined five expert speakers in discussing: ‘CAP in the UK: How would ‘Brexit’ affect British farming?’.
Molly Scott Cato MEP (@MollyMEP), the first Green MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar (and a member of the European Parliament’s Agriculture & Rural Development committee), kicked off proceedings by asking two questions: would farmers be better or worse off if Britain were to leave the EU? And, would the environment be better or worse off Britain were to leave the EU? She said: “My answer on both those counts is that it’s better for us [Britain] to be members.”
According to European Commission data, CAP subsidies account for 43 per cent of agricultural income (2013 data) in Britain.
Molly Scott Cato said: “I don’t see CAP payments [to farmers] as just a cash transfer, they are very much about what we pay to farmers in return for the countryside that we all value and they protect. We would argue that all farmers should be required to provide environmental and social measures in return for the public money they receive.”
The majority view in the room – although there were notable exceptions (see later) – was that British agricultural stakeholders were likely to lose out if the country were to leave the EU.
Molly Scott Cato MEP had an interesting perspective from Brussels, saying: “In respect of ‘should Britain leave the EU?’, the main question is ‘would a British government on its own provide the same sort of support that the EU provides [to farmers]?’. My observation is that farmers are a much stronger lobbying group in other EU countries than they are in Britain. We [Britons] don’t seem to see agriculture as being as central to our economy in the way France and Mediterranean countries do. I think farmers would be left very vulnerable if we left the EU.”
She continued with a more political point, saying: “I don’t have a free-market view. I think we can justify having it [agriculture] outside the market system – I’m not sure that view is particularly widely shared. My nervousness would be, if we [Britain] were to leave the EU, would Westminster move to a more market view? It could be like what happened in New Zealand when subsidies were removed: farms increased in size and we saw greater intensification. This would be bad for rural communities.”
Martin Haworth, Deputy Director-General of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) (@NFUtweets) – who earlier this year published an article on Brexit and farming– identified five issues of most salience.
First, and most important, being access to the Single Market; second: “is Britain going to be more or less open to imports?”; third, what form British agricultural policy would take outside the EU; fourth, labour mobility (“whole sections of British agriculture depend on migrant labour”); and, fifth, EU regulation.
Related to his fifth point, Haworth made an interesting observation, saying: “’Gold-plating’ is a problem: we [Britain] do a lot more than we’re supposed to in implementing those [EU] laws and, if that’s the case, then clearly the problem is the British government and not the EU. Finally, from the farmers’ point of view, some of the most difficult regulations are national regulations, not EU regulations.”
Haworth then gave the floor to Lynsey Martin (@LynseyMartin8), Chair of the Agricultural and Rural Issues Steering Group of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC).
According to the European Commission, just 4.1% of farmers in the UK are aged under 35 years old (the EU average is 7.5%) and 28.4% are older than 64.
Martin focused her remarks on the barriers to entry facing wannabe farmers, and talked positively of the role of CEJA (the European Council of Young Farmers), which bills itself as ‘the voice of Europe’s next generation of farmers to the European institutions’. She said: “At CEJA [meetings] we often end up talking about barriers to entry.”
Martin described land-prices as being “through the roof” and access to finance as “really hard to come by”.
Emma Hockridge (@emmahockridge), Head of Policy at the Soil Association, picked up on what had already emerged as a theme in describing the EU as “hugely important as a trading partner for us [Britain].”
Picking up on Molly Scott Cato MEP’s reference to ‘public goods’, Hockridge said: “The CAP has had problems over the years, but it has changed – it’s certainly not faultless – but more money is now given to farmers to produce public goods.”
She emphasised: “Public money for public goods is needed to balance commercial forces.”
Making a point of equal relevance outside of farming, she pointed out: “If Britain weren’t part of the EU we would still have to follow those regulations because a large proportion of our goods are exported.”
Hockridge’s final point related to R&I, saying that Britain had “really benefitted” from European investment. She added: “There is the European Innovation Partnership ‘Agricultural Productivity & Sustainability’ but we’re yet to see how that will work. It is aiming to ensure research activity responds to ground-level needs.”
Martin Nesbit (@arrhenius), Senior Fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) – and a former EU and International Director at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – did not hold back on his views on CAP, saying: “At the moment, the CAP is too expensive and poorly targeted, deeply unclear in the objectives it is trying to achieve, and insufficiently focused on environmental outcomes. This is partly because it is the outcome of negotiations between different member states and squabbles between different states’ budget contributions. Other disadvantages are the EU audit process.”
Giving his view on one of the main questions to have already emerged during the discussion, he said: “It’s unlikely to be possible [in Britain] to secure the same level of public expenditure for agriculture outside the EU as it is within the EU.”
Picking up on a further theme on how British agriculture would look outside the EU, he said: “The key problem, as has been mentioned already, is that Britain would have to comply with [EU] legislation without having a say in how that legislation is written. I think there would be particular risks around animal-health and the application of veterinary rules: UK vets are hugely influential in European discussions. Obviously we have the question of how the UK [would undertake] its own trade negotiations.”
He concluded: “I don’t think things are satisfactory. But I think they would be significantly less satisfactory if we were outside.”
Later during the Q&A session, Nesbit further explained his point as regards trade, saying: “If you look at the process for Norway or Switzerland [both non-EU members] to negotiate with the EU it usually takes about a decade. So, I think it could take a long time before we know what kind of future we’d be facing. And the uncertainty in the meantime is huge. It’s a very scary world.”
Although many roundtable participants were both in favour of Britain’s EU membership and the CAP’s overall impact on British agriculture, one participant was forthright in his dislike of the CAP. He said: “Our industry is completely regulated by the CAP. As Europe gets bigger, the CAP penalises us. The [European] Council has been diluted as we go from 15 to 28 member states. There is stuff that’s wrong – we can’t just sit here and say ‘if we were outside of the EU, we’d be worse [off]’. I’m an example of things that need to change. I’ve heard a lot today of how uncertain it would be outside the EU. For us we’d probably be much more certain. And I think you’ll hear a lot more examples like ours as we go through the next six to 12 months. Europe is supposed to celebrate diversity but in our case it actually penalises it.”
As the roundtable drew towards a close, Molly Scott Cato MEP was rather downbeat about agriculture’s relative importance in the Brexit debate, saying: “Political capital available will not be spent in favour of agriculture.”
Discussion also returned to migrant workers, and the NFU’s Martin Haworth said: “There isn’t an alternative – British workers aren’t interested in doing that kind of seasonal work. The only way round that is if an exit from the EU is so disastrous and jobs are so short that people are willing to do those jobs.”
Asked to re-state his main overall message, Haworth said: “It is inevitable that because of agricultural subsidies, so much of this debate [Brexit’s likely impact on farming] goes on subsidy – it’s the trade effects that are more important.”
Meanwhile, the NFYFC’s Lynsey Martin said: “We will continue to work with CEJA because it seems to us that we have more influence there [with CEJA] than we do in this country – whether that’s effective or not is up for argument. Until we have more info what ‘Brexit’ would look like, we can’t make an informed decision.”
The IEEP’s Martin Nesbit concluded by saying: “The overwhelming challenge in all of this is the level of uncertainty around what the future would look like were there to be a vote to leave – that uncertainty itself would be hugely damaging to most interests, particularly agriculture.”
A show of hands at the end saw a roughly even split between participants thinking the UK’s referendum on EU membership will be held in 2016 and those reckoning it will be in 2017.
EurActiv’s event featured about 50 people and was co-financed by the European Commission. It was held at Four Millbank, Westminster, from 12.00-14.00 on Thursday 5 November.
— EurActivUK (@EurActivUK) November 6, 2015
The UK House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has just (start of November) launched an inquiry into price volatility and agricultural resilience.
The committee wants to receive evidence from a wide range of witnesses and encourages interested parties to submit their views by 31 December 2015. Evidence sessions will be held in December 2015 and January 2016.
For further details, see:
In a related blog post, Giacomo Benedetto, also present at the event, argues that the rist of losing funding, free trade, seasonal labour and agricultural standards is almost unthinkable.
Read Giocomo’s full blog post on the LSE BrexitVote:
The CAP fits: why farmers want to stay in the EU blog