Issues relating to the agricultural sector have not received the attention that might have been expected, says Dr Alan Greer, but examination of those issues presents some surprising results.
In the Brexit referendum, the issues of agriculture, food and rural affairs have not perhaps been discussed as extensively as might have been expected, considering that farming subsidies still eat up a sizeable chunk of the EU budget (not far off 40 per cent although declining gradually). On the other hand, with the relatively low importance of food production to the UK economy as a whole, it is not surprising that political questions about immigration, the UKs relationship with Europe and how much it ‘costs’ have dominated.
When farming, food and rural issues have been discussed, the debate reflects a basic divide around how beneficial the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is to the UK. “Leave” campaigners suggest that outside the EU it would be possible to construct a policy more in tune with the needs of the country, although they don’t give much indication of what this would look like. While some would like to see a much more deregulated food production sector that operates in a liberalised world market, most of the senior campaigners have suggested that policy would continue on the same broad lines (with perhaps some weakening of “red tape”) and that the level of subsidisation would be maintained - indeed some actually have floated the possibility that more money could be available given the substantial sums that they believe would be released by Brexit. Those in favour of remaining in the EU – most senior figures in the agri-food sector and the leaderships of the main farming organisations throughout the UK – focus on the dangers they see in Brexit, including the uncertainties and costs it would bring in terms of trade relationships and the policy framework.
A second facet of the debate relates to the views of farmers themselves. Before the start of the referendum campaign a widely-shared view probably would have been that most farmers would vote in favour of remaining in the EU, given the level of subsidies the agricultural sector receives from the CAP. In fact it is clear that – as with the country as a while – there are important divisions amongst farmers throughout the UK. Polling evidence is patchy and unreliable but it might not be far off the mark to suggest that while perhaps a small majority of farmers are in favour of remaining in the EU, there is a substantial minority for Brexit and certainly many also who are undecided. Even amongst farmers, the impact of Brexit on the agri-food sector may not be the most important consideration in determining how they will vote and their views will reflect wider political factors. On the farming issues, financial subsidies may not necessarily be the major consideration. In addition not all farmers benefit equally, and while some are heavily reliant on subsidies provided by the CAP (e.g. those in less favoured upland areas), others do not benefit much in direct financial terms (the horticulture sector for example). Many farmers also clearly see leaving the EU as a way to reduce what they regard as the over-bearing regulatory framework that they have to work under. However whether Brexit would actually reduce this substantially is a moot point given that counter interests such as those wanting to retain important environmental protections would certainly lobby strongly for this after any EU exit.
Dr Alan Greer is Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of the west of England.