Whether you voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum, agriculture’s now in uncharted waters. The politics of the debate are over, for now, and the focus for agriculture is on two fronts. The first is our relationship with the European Commission and European parliament as the long process of leaving the CAP begins. The other is securing a commitment from the Treasury that it will continue to fund agriculture on a long-term basis.
Another issue is the future of rural development; like direct payments this is safe for now, but rural development is an EU policy, and it remains to be seen if and how the UK will deliver similar schemes.
For now the CAP continues – all the paperwork and controls are the same today as they were before the vote. This is unlikely to change until 2019 or 2020, but there are no firm answers and agriculture’s just a bit-player in an unfolding drama. Inevitably all dealings with Brussels will be a lot more frosty and the UK may find it lacks influence in the mid-term review of the CAP next year, which could act against changes to greening. Already discussions are beginning on the future shape of the CAP after 2020, but those are discussions now of no interest to the UK.
The Leave decision is about a change of direction, and things that have been certainties in agriculture for 40-plus years will now change. That makes it difficult to continue operating the CAP, but the farming industry and farm lobby organisations need to make sure it continues to run smoothly and delivers the funding the industry needs. This will be easy, provided there are no big problems, but if these emerge farm lobby organisations will find concessions from Brussels more difficult to secure. The current batch of British MEPs will be the last, making those currently in the parliament a group whose influence has waned dramatically.
This will not make life easy for farm lobby organisations, but the bigger issue they’ll need to pursue is the future of trading relationships. The trade issue will be the central one for the Government. Agricultural interests will just be a small part of wider discussions about trying to retain the Single Market while not an EU member. Where this goes only time will tell, but it’s difficult to believe the members of the EU without the UK will not demand that lamb, beef or dairy products match or even exceed the standards set in the CAP.
On trade outside the EU the farming lobby needs one key question answered: will the UK emulate the EU by maintaining tariffs against cheap food imports when negotiating trade deals? Since Brexit advocates promised cheaper food that seems unlikely. They’ll find it difficult to secure speedy trade deals when offering access to a market of only 60 million as opposed to the EU with 500m people.
The biggest issue is securing continued funding for agriculture from the UK Treasury. It should have the funds to do this thanks to sending less to Brussels, but securing a long-term commitment won’t be easy. Whether it’s a Conservative or Labour government, there’s no real interest in agriculture, so this will be a huge and lengthy joint battle for the UK farm unions.
These issues go to the core of farm profitability, but in the uncharted water we are now in we’re only beginning to draw up the to-do list to maintain trade and protect farm incomes, and there’ll be no speedy solutions or reassurance.