We’re now well into the final weeks before the EU referendum vote on 23rd June. The many still showing up in polls as floating voters will soon have to make up their minds about where their vote will go. This means there’s still a lot to play for on both sides.
Over the past couple of weeks the debate’s taken on a harder edge. Those for and against Brexit realise this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make or lose their case. Regardless of what some may say, no matter how close the result is there will not be another referendum. Indeed, when it’s over the challenge will be for David Cameron to re-establish unity in his party after months of blood-letting.
What we’ve had to date are a series of claims and counter claims, all expressed in sound bites. People will have different reasons for how they will vote. Sovereignty and migration will be headline issues, but for many farmers it will be about which outcome will deliver the better result for their businesses.
Ironically, while farmers are more dependent on the EU than other parts of society, there hasn’t been a lot said about agriculture by either side. The issues that need to go beyond sound bites include food prices, the future of farm support and trade.
Both sides accept that in the event of a Brexit decision the value of sterling would drop and that would create the conditions for the UK to enjoy something of an export boom.
The question then becomes where those exports will be destined. Within the EU, when sterling is weak there’s a ready market on our doorstep. That market will still be there, but the unknown is what conditions the UK would have to meet to trade with a more hostile EU. Led by France, the countries there will insist UK produce at least matches the standards of the CAP that farmers are keen to escape.
The gamble with trade is replacing a guaranteed market of 500 million people in the EU with the hope of doing more business with the rest of the world. But there’s nothing in EU rules to stop British companies trading wherever they want outside the EU. Those markets are there today to be exploited by any member state.
It’s true that the EU, as a bloc, wants to conclude trade deals with South America, Canada and the United States. It argues that it can be more successful doing so, since it can offer a market of 500m consumers, while a trade deal with the UK alone would be to access a market of just 60m. This is an argument the Leave advocates need to address, to show that the trade deals they promise can be delivered.
One of the Remain group’s warnings is that in the event of Brexit food prices would rise. This could be good news for farmers, or a reason for the Treasury to resist pressure for UK farm subsidies. This claim has to be based around that fall in the value of sterling. Given that the UK is not self-sufficient in food, a fall in the value of sterling would increase the price of imports, particularly from eurozone countries. This would, however, only apply if those countries were able to demand higher prices. Like the trade claims on the Leave side, this is why we need to move from sound bites to real facts.