Dorothy Fairburn: EU vote: What is the Plan B for farmers and rural economy?

What will the EU referendum mean for farming?
What will the EU referendum mean for farming?
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THERE are two important things to remember about referendums.

Firstly, they are always started with a promise to “settle this matter once and for all” (and they never do).

Secondly, it can feel like a pause button has been pressed and that only once it is released can we get on with our everyday and ongoing priorities.

I do not say this to play down the importance of the vote on June 23.

Whether we choose to leave or remain in the EU is an issue of fundamental importance to the way we organise our rural economy and communities, and how we manage our landscapes and environment.

For rural businesses, the way we are governed is intertwined with the EU.

It is a vital market for our products and it provides direct financial support to farmers and land managers. Workers from across the EU are also critical to many parts of our agricultural workforce.

Leave campaigners are asking voters to embrace the chance of a generation for the UK to free itself from an outdated institution that faces fundamental crises and is increasingly unable to help UK business exploit opportunities in global markets.

On the other hand, Remain campaigners stress the importance of the EU as a stabilising entity in an uncertain world and that the UK has the opportunity to shape the EU’s future.

For us at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), representing over 3,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses in Yorkshire and over 33,000 in England and Wales, the question is not which side are we backing going in to the poll, but what happens the day after the historic vote.

That is why we have published our report Leave or Remain: The Decisions Politicians Must Make to Support the Rural Economy.

It sets out clearly the core issues for those of us who live and work in the rural economy and shows how there are crucial decisions to be made whether we leave or remain.

The official Government position is in favour of remaining in the EU and it would seem they are not planning for what would happen if they lose the vote.

Alternatively, they may just not be willing to say what they are planning for fear of giving more people the confidence to vote against.

Smart politics, maybe, but not the way you would run a business – and it’s the businesses that we care about.

In the absence of a plan from the Government, we have set out the four rural priorities that Ministers must address urgently.

Trade: It is hard to overestimate the importance of the EU as a market for the products of our rural economy.

In 2013, 62 per cent of UK agri-food exports were exported within the EU and 70 per cent of the UK’s agri-food imports came from Europe.

The UK trade relationship with the EU is far from perfect, but whatever happens when the country goes to the polls in just over three months time, access to EU markets for UK agricultural and all other products must continue.

Regulation: The prospect of significant reduction in red tape is hard to foresee if the UK leaves the EU.

Farming and other rural businesses will need Ministers to commit, in both Leave and Remain scenarios, to working for simpler systems that support rather than restrain commerce and also enable care for the environment.

Labour market: The UK relies heavily on Eastern European labour in farming. If freedom of movement is restricted, a mechanism must be implemented for farmers and other rural businesses to continue to employ the workforce they need.

Direct financial support: Of the four areas it is perhaps the issue of direct financial support that will focus the mind of farmers.

Debate over the merits and weaknesses of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has simmered for many years.

Currently almost £4bn a year is invested via the EU into supporting sustainable agriculture, environmental management and the wider rural economy.

New independent research shows that the economic multiplier benefit for the UK economy of this investment is £10bn, and that it sustains over 370,000 UK jobs – equivalent to around 10 per cent of the total rural workforce.

That investment must continue whether we are in or out of the EU, and there is significant potential for damaging uncertainty here.

Farmers have budgeted for their businesses to receive payments through to the end of the current CAP framework in 2020.

If the UK votes to leave, Ministers will need to confirm they will develop a UK agricultural policy that ensures the necessary investment in farming, conservation and land management continues beyond Brexit.

Every day that passes after a vote to leave on which Ministers are not forthcoming with clarity on these issues will compound the wider crisis we are facing across our farming sector.

If the UK votes to leave, the uncertainties for farming and other rural businesses are immediate.

If we vote to remain, there are still critical commitments that Ministers will need to make.

We cannot leave plans that are this important to chance – the Government must step up to its responsibilities and visibly prepare for both eventualities.

Dorothy Fairburn is regional 
director of the Country Land and 
Business Association.