Emotions run high at Brexit debate

The Farmers Club's exclusive members-only EU Referendum debate witnessed vigorous discussion of the key issues for the sector

Brexit Panel  

Click for the photo gallery of the event

A video of the Brexit Debate can be viewed from the members-only Debate Section of the Club website. Register using your Club membership number (on statements, your Journal envelope or contact membership secretary Mark Fairbairn e-mail: membership@thefarmersclub.com tel: 020 7925 7102). 

Farming implications of the EU in/out referendum were keenly contested at an impassioned Farmers Club debate on Wednesday 27th April, in front of a packed audience of over 220 Club members.  

Proposing the motion that 'UK Agriculture would be better if the electorate voted for the UK to leave the EU' were the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP and Kate Hoey MP, with the motion opposed by former NFU President Sir Peter Kendall and former MEP George Lyon. The heated debate was expertly chaired by Charlotte Smith, BBC Radio 4 Farming Today Presenter. 

Whilst the Farmers Club takes no political stance, a hands-up poll showed no clear winner, with a smattering of delegates still undecided.  

Opening the discussion Mr Paterson insisted the UK was destined to assume some ill-defined associate status if it stayed in the EU, out-voted in the parliament and the council. The EU was bust, he asserted, with £230bn of uncovered spending commitments, a point Mr Lyon forcibly disagreed with, noting that EU spending plans were balanced with projected revenue.  

"On the money you are not safe staying in," Mr Paterson continued. "In 2021 there is no certainty where this thing will go. There will be enormous pressure to reduce support. Leaving is far safer, economically." 

A farm support regime could be targeted at the specific needs of the UK industry and environment, he said. "We would also benefit globally, getting our seat back on world bodies, which is where the bulk of policy is made now, so we could guide world regulation to benefit our industry."  

Current EU policy was wholly opposed to technology, he added. "We could make the UK the center of world farming research, for our environment. Vote leave and give power over your industry to people who you can boot out by voting," he added. 

Sir Peter Kendall felt it was one of the most important debates the Club had witnessed since its inception in 1842. "No one can predict what our trading position will be, but it is plain wrong that the UK market is more important to the EU, than their market is to us." 

He also feared a future UK government may lack farmer-focus. "We as farmers are a tiny part of society, with urban swing seats crucial." Future political influence may not be as strong as now. Agriculture was emphatically better served by EU policy than an NGO-driven UK government, he asserted. 

He also refuted Mr Paterson's claim that the EU held back technology. Many EU countries demonstrated world-leading technologies. "What does Michael Gove mean when he says food will be cheaper? I think we all know what that means," he continued.

Kate Hoey felt farmers could succeed without the support of 27 other countries. She took a broader vision. The crucial thing about leaving the EU was that the UK could take back control of so many things that had been lost, she said. 

"You did not vote for what the EU has become, taking more power away from our parliaments and giving it to unelected commissioners. This is the last opportunity we will get in our lifetimes to take the power back. And it's not as if we aren't a big country, the world's fifth largest economy. 

"The only certainty about staying is that your CAP isn't very certain for very much longer. The EU is a dysfunctional organisation, with a shrinking share of the world market, year on year. Why remain part of it?" She urged farmers to take a stronger stance and to put 'a bit more manure' in front of its own parliament, as the French did. 

George Lyon recalled the fanciful claims made for Scotland leaving the UK. He felt the same applied to the EU referendum. As part of the EU the UK leads the biggest economy in the world, growing faster than America and Germany, and the EU has helped deliver that. because it gives unfettered access on a level playing field to the biggest market in the world, he stressed. 

"Being part of the EU has helped achieve economic success rather than holding it back. Together EU nations are a powerful force in the world. As Barack Obama said - the EU doesn't moderate UK influence, it magnifies it."

"We can't have it both ways by leaving - having the benefits without the downsides. And the leavers can't agree what relationship we would have with the EU - Norway model, Canada model, or even Albania model," he said. All those different options showed the UK out of the EU being billions of pounds worse off, poorer and with less influence. 

Stuart Agnew, UKIP MEP, asked if the glyphosate ban agreed in Strasbourg for seven years from now was a good idea. George Lyon corrected him, noting that the licence was renewed for seven years, and Germany had agreed to back it. He stressed that MEPs had more power and were well able to influence the policies of the Commission. 

Mr Paterson felt that was "absolute tosh", with UK MEPs routinely outvoted. Why couldn't UK politicians be advised by UK scientists, as happened with neonicotinoids, to justify a derogation [forced to be only partial by the EC], he argued. Mr Kendall noted that EU markets would be unlikely to buy farm produce from a UK outside the EU that was grown to standards that differed from their own. 

Lord Plumb, who sat at the negotiating table for EEC entry in 1973, noted that only one country was now recommending the UK leave the EU - Russia. He raised the fear of no financial support coming from a UK government outside the EU within five years. 

Minette Batters, NFU deputy president, feared gold plating of regulations created for the UK only. She also asked how an independent UK would defeat TB from outside Europe. Mr Lyon felt UK politicians had a track-record for bowing to consumer/environmental pressure, and outside the EU that would only be exacerbated, attracting strong applause from the audience. 

Mark Hudson wondered how technology would be empowered to advance the industry. A government committed to science was key, said Mr Lyon, but agriculture had been bottom of the spending list for the past two UK government spending rounds. Mr Paterson said the EU was to blame, being so hostile to technology. 

Aled Griffiths, first generation poultry farmer from Shropshire, noted that the UK government wanted to gold plate regulations over and above EU policy, as he had experienced with beak trimming. 

A perception that EU accounts persistently failed to pass audit scrutiny was raised. Mr Lyon noted that they had been signed off for the past seven years, since governments complied with the correct release of information. Indeed, the 'error' rate was lower than the U.S. Federal budget. 

Tony Pexton, felt his heart said co-operate with a reformed EU, but his head said there was not much evidence of reform in the EU, the euro was struggling and Schengen was crumbling. "Don't file for divorce because of the first barney, stick with it, engage in the debate and help drive change," responded Mr Kendall .Mrs Hoey felt that could be achieved just as well from outside the EU.  

How would environmental directives be impacted, another delegate asked. Mr Paterson felt the EU was unable to tailor them to UK needs. Post-Brexit regulations could be far more appropriately tailored to the needs of UK farmers and the environment. 

Julie Robinson, lawyer, asked how farm trade could best be optimised. Mr Paterson said the EU was poor at negotiating trade deals, as seen with TTIP, whereas many counties achieved far better results, far more quickly, by negotiating bi-laterally - whereas the EU worked 'at the speed of the slowest handicapped donkey'. 

Mr Kendal was comforted that Phil Hogan was negotiating on beef in the Mercosur trade discussions, whereas a UK-only negotiation by the Treasury would put agriculture at the bottom.

Finally, Mr Lyon wanted the UK to move from a defensive crouch position within Europe and adopt a more leadership role in the EU, to make it work, drawing applause.

Have your say 

Farmers Club members can share views about the EU In/Out Referendum in the Debate section of the website www.thefarmersclub.com Register for this members only area using your Club membership number (on your Journal envelope or contact membership secretary Mark Fairbairn e-mail: membership@thefarmersclub.com tel: 020 7925 7102).