Henry Robinson: Big choices ahead over Britain, the EU and future of farming

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IT was a general election result few predicted and its political ramifications of the Conservative victory are still being pored over in the broadsheets. For
CLA colleagues and myself it is very much back to work arguing the case for members across the broad range of policy areas that matter to the countryside.

That sense of continuity is reinforced by the fact that many of the Ministers in posts relevant to us are back at the same desks and will pick up where they left off. That said, this is a different Government with a new mandate and we will face new policy challenges and opportunities.

One big event now looms that bit larger on the horizon. This is the Prime Minister’s plan for a renegotiation and then a referendum on UK membership of the EU. It’s the issue I have been discussing with members for many months now and it is something for which we have been preparing.

It’s not an easy task to unpick the ways in which the UK’s membership of the EU has shaped the rural economy for more than 40 years. Direct financial support and the EU’s regulatory framework affect the everyday decision-making of businesses of all sizes and types.

We have been preparing for just this eventuality by undertaking an audit of all financial investment EU-originating legislation. The first thing we learned is that there are no simple binary choices involved. In a scenario where the UK left the EU, it would be highly unlikely to mean that all EU originating laws disappeared. Our analysis is that in most cases the rules would simply be transposed word for word, and if there is scope for change it would be limited and take place over time.

Equally, staying in does not mean things will stay the same in regulations and financial support in future. Partly because the UK may secure significant changes to the way the EU works in the renegotiation period, but also because there are big decisions ahead related to a Common Agricultural Policy after 2020 and other matters.

For the businesses I talk to the major immediate concern is uncertainty. When will the referendum be? What would a renegotiation look like? What would happen if we left?

The lack of answers to these questions will impact on investment decisions and could hold back job creation and growth. It is therefore vital that the CLA provides information where we can, and presses for answers where we can’t. That starts now with our engagement with the Government on the EU Referendum Bill.

The other role we have is helping members and others to fully understand the implications of change. Especially, and specifically, change in the financial investment the EU currently makes in the rural economy across the UK. This is about the direct support provided to farmers though Pillar 1 CAP payments, but also the Pillar 2 payments for agri-environment schemes and broader investments made in rural economic development.

We will show how this investment is shaping the rural economy, creating jobs and ensuring we manage our local environment. Our message to the politicians is that whatever the outcome of a referendum, they must have a plan to ensure investment levels are maintained. We all fear the significant consequences if they don’t and we have to explain these clearly.

I know that between now and the referendum, I will be asked time and again to provide a view or whether the UK should stay in the EU or not. I will form my personal view based on the factors I have laid out and how our analysis evolves. The CLA will be helping all our members do the same.

As for the CLA itself, we will continue to make the case for a regulatory framework that is fair and workable and for direct financial support that promotes stable agricultural production and investment in our rural economy.

Our message in the upcoming referendum will be that both sides must have credible plans for how they will deliver this because the risks are too great if they don’t.

Henry Robinson is president of the Country Land and Business Association.