Should we stay or should we go?

Not long ago, debate in Europe was about the eurozone and whether countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain would have to leave because their financial problems were so deep. That led to the term ‘Grexit’ being coined, but now the term in play is ‘Brexit’. If opinion polls are right, the prospect of the UK leaving the EU is now more real than the likelihood of countries leaving the eurozone ever was.

This would take the UK and EU into uncharted waters, but prospects for a ‘leave’ vote are looking more likely than when the debate began. Events and timing seem to be driving the vast group of ‘unknowns’ in the polls towards voting against EU membership.

What is clear is that while business groups and others may or may not offer their views on the referendum, people’s voting intentions are more personal than business driven. This may change as we get closer to the referendum, and for now my hunch is that by a slim margin the status quo will win the day. This is largely based on the global financial and political world looking a lot less certain than a few months ago, and in those circumstances people shy away from radical change. That said, my view is little more than a guess; the debate’s wide open with everything to play for in the ‘stay’ and ‘leave’ camps.

The ‘leave’ side’s case is that since the UK’s a net contributor to the CAP, there could be more money for farming if it leaves. As a bonus the funds would come without the red tape of the CAP. That would be a good argument if either of the major political parties at Westminster were to confirm that would happen.

In reality, funds going to agriculture would probably be, at best, the same, and because they’d be decided by London parties with a firm urban bias, they’d be driven more by the environment than farming. As to red tape, since the UK has a reputation for gold plating what comes from Brussels, it’s hard to believe a stand-alone UK agriculture policy would mean less red tape. If the ‘leave’ camp wants to win farmer support it will need to turn vague promises about life outside the CAP into hard financial facts.

The ‘stay’ camp has been equally reticent about making its case. There’s a sense that it’s taking farmers for granted because of the CAP. However, it needs to be making the case that the EU links farmers in the UK to the power of the European farm lobby, which would be lost with a ‘leave’ vote. This is an argument it could press, since farmers here have been helped for years by the strength of pro-CAP countries shaping the CAP.

There’s also a case about access to European markets, and of the need for market strength in a volatile and uncertain global market. This would help bolster the case for a ‘stay’ vote, but those arguments are absent from the debate; if farmers are to be convinced, they need to be there loud and clear.

Respected agricultural economist, Allan Buckwell, believes that outside the EU farmers would not receive more in support, and he’s convinced they could receive a lot less. He believes that with the Treasury driving the debate there’d be pressure to reduce support across the board, by targeting aid going to larger farmers. While these might look like strong pro-EU sentiments, Mr Buckwell warns that whether the UK is in or out, the CAP, as it stands, is not sustainable.

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