Is UK agriculture better off in or out of Europe?

thEUnit Digest

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Farmers would be ‘reckless and naive’ to think current farm support levels would continue if the UK left the European Union, according to a leading Conservative MEP.

Richard Ashworth was responding to claims made by UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew that farmers would be better outside the EU, during a feisty European elections hustings event in London on Wednesday evening.

Mr Agnew, a Norfolk farmer himself, fought a lone battle on the issue of EU membership, as politicians from four other UK political parties all made the case for staying in Europe, albeit while pursuing reform of its flawed institutions.

Mr Agnew announced himself at the NFU-organised event, which took place at the Farmers Club, by declaring ‘the party is over’ as far as UK farming’s relationship with the EU is concerned.

While admitting Europe provided a ‘bonanza’ for UK farmers in the decade up to 1984, he said the bad has increasingly outweighed the good since.

“We feel in UKIP we would be better to be outside the EU, particularly for agriculture,” he said.

Regulation

He made repeated reference throughout the evening to how Europe has ‘strangled’ British agriculture through regulation, citing the neonicotinoid ban, the inability to grow GM crops and a raft of legislation imposed on pig and poultry producers.

If you work for the European Commission, he said, your one job is to make rules. “It is a job for life. The only way to get sacked is if you are a whistle blower.”

While the other candidates for the May 22 European Parliament elections argued that UK farmers needed to be part of the single EU trading block, Mr Agnew said, if it left the union, the UK could forge its own trading relationships, for example, with Japan.

You don’t have to be in a political union to trade with it. If we were to leave the EU we would still be members of the WTO,” he said.

UKIP has pledged to continue the Single Farm Payment at the same level but, realistically, is not going to be in a position to make that decision.

Mr Agnew derided the ‘shambles’ of last year’s CAP reform. He argued that CAP funding has been falling – its share of the EU budget is now 48 per cent, compared with 80 per cent at one point – and will continue to do so as member states look to contribute less to central EU funds and the union expands east bringing in more net beneficiaries.

We are getting a smaller share of a smaller cake,” he said.

Reckless

He pointed out that, as the second biggest net contributor, the UK would save money by leaving the EU, while other member states would have to cut payments in the absence of the UK contribution.

But Mr Ashworth, a South East MEP and, like Mr Agnew, a member of the EU Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, dismissed the suggestion UK farmers would not be harmed by leaving the EU.

He pointed out that they still receive €4.18bn (£3.44bn) a year from the CAP and that this money typically accounts for 50 per cent of a farm’s net income.

“The idea that we could leave the EU and manage without 50 per cent of net farm income is not going to run,” he said.

We are not going to be able to pass that onto consumers because retailers would fly around the world and get and buy the food from where they can get it, so that is not going to happen.

“You could say the British Government will pay it but it would be reckless and naïve to believe that is going to happen.

“Without a shadow of doubt the UK is better off within the CAP, which is not to say agricultural policy doesn’t need to change,” he said.

He said leaving the EU would leave UK farmers disadvantaged against farmers stilln accessing the CAP in 27 other member states and would expose the UK to trading on its own in the global marketplace, where it would face tariffs on ‘everything you send for export’.

Trading Bloc

Labour South East candidate James Swindlehurst said the UK needed to be part of the EU trading bloc to compete on a global scale with the likes of China, Russia and the US.

“China is growing at 7 per cent a year. The only trading bloc big enough to rival it is the EU. In the long-term we have to work in that marketplace,” he said.

The last CAP reform didn’t do nearly enough to tackle the historic inefficiencies of the CAP but we need to retain a common policy.”

Catherine Bearder, an East of England MEP, stressed that her party, the Liberal Democrats, was the only one that stood, unequivocally as ‘the party of in-Europe’.

She said that, if the UK left Europe, farmers would still have to comply with all the rules and regulations coming out of Brussels to trade with it but would be powerless to alter those rules. Farming rules would be set by the French and the Germans.

Impoverished UK

We would have a very much impoverished UK,” she said.

This prompted an angry response from Mr Agnew who claimed the UK already had minimal influence over events in Europe, which were increasingly driven by countries in Eurozone. “Our voice is pathetic,” he said.

Green Party candidate Caroline Allen, a practising vet, said her party wanted to stay in Europe but push to reform it, including doing more to tackle climate change and transforming the CAP to benefit the environment and smaller farmers.

We need to work together in Europe to tackle climate change and the idea. If we leave Europe the CAP money disappears and the idea that we could carry on on our own in global markets is just ridiculous,” she said.

 

This article first appeared in thEUnit Digest.

MEP hammers Brussels “doublespeak” on agriculture

Announcements by the European Commission on the proposed restructuring of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have been condemned by British MEP Stuart Agnew who said they would create “a lawyer’s paradise”. Mr Agnew said: “The proposals to target CAP subsidies toward ‘active farmers’ are a classic example of ‘doublespeak’, introduced as a simplification when it rapidly becomes apparent that things will be much more complicated. These proposals will create a lawyer’s paradise because they will have to become involved in deciding if the splitting of a business is a genuine desire or whether it is just a cynical subsidy harvesting operation. Lawyers will also be involved in deciding who is an ‘active farmer’ and what exactly constitutes ‘farmed’ land.”

“Inevitably, yet another British quango must be set up to advise farmers of their benefits. All this new tide of micro-management demonstrates is that it is not practical or sensible to have a single agriculture policy for 27 very diverse countries developed and administered by unelected, deskbound bureaucrats from the European Commission.”

Another blow for British farmers

“Battery chickens” are a thing of the past in Britain, and millions of pounds have been spent ensuring that this form of egg production is well and truly eradicated in this country. But now it looks as if the EU, which helped to push through this policy in the first place, is no longer interested in enforcing it and will allow egg producers on the Continent to flout the law, thereby undercutting British farmers.

John Dalli, the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, told the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee recently that the Commission will no longer make any serious attempt to ensure that the battery cage ban is properly enforced or that consumers will be made aware that they are buying battery eggs.

The Commissioner’s statement brought a furious response from committee member Stuart Agnew MEP, who is himself a farmer and a producer of free range eggs.

Mr Agnew has launched a campaign to ensure that eggs bought and sold in the UK from January 2012 onwards will be from approved sources and not from illegal battery farming. From 1st January, a ban on eggs produced from battery cage hens is due to come into effect, but despite being warned many times the European Commission has failed to take any serious steps to enforce the ban or to pressure member states to prepare for it.

Unfair competition

The biggest concern is with eggs produced in Eastern and Southern Europe, Mr Agnew said. “Five EU member states – Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Spain and Greece – have to date provided absolutely no information about their efforts to comply with the legislation. Mr Dalli told us that it is the responsibility of member states to ensure compliance, not the Commission, which is a total abrogation of responsibility for legislation it generated.

“This effectively means that British egg producers, who have invested £400 million of their own money to comply with the ban, are being abandoned and many could go out of business in the face of unfair competition from battery egg producers in other EU member states.

“It becomes more than ever vital that the UK Government takes urgent steps to ensure that imported eggs comply with the law.”

The UKIP MEP added, “In order to protect British egg producers and consumers from illegally produced eggs, I am stepping up pressure on supermarkets to ensure that they will not be sourcing battery produced eggs after 1st January. I am also making sure that they are aware of the potential problem of illegal eggs coming into the country and/or being used in food products they are selling to British consumers.

“Fortunately, some consumers are waking up to the problem and, to date I have had nearly 400 emails on this one subject. I have replied to every one of them, supplying a list of 22 supermarket head office addresses that they should write to and I have suggested that they should also write to their local MP, to get them to pressure the Government to ensure that businesses that trade in imported eggs are made aware of the need to avoid battery produced eggs. The response has been overwhelmingly supportive of my campaign.

“One other big lesson everyone should learn from this crisis,” said Mr Agnew, “Is that if we were an independent self-governing nation, we would never have allowed ourselves to get into such a mess.”