The ongoing debate about whether the UK should Remain in or Leave the EU came to the Royal Bath and West show on Wednesday 1st June. Neil Parish, a former MEP who sat on the European Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and currently MP for Tiverton and Honiton and the Chairman of the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Select Committee, argued for Remain. The staunch Eurosceptic, Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset, argued for Leave.
The debate was held at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) breakfast event. Originally known in 1973 as the ‘European breakfast’ (the year Britain joined the EU) it was fitting that this year the event saw the ‘Brexit’ debate take place. Tim Breitmayer, Deputy President of the CLA, opened proceedings by stressing the benefits of the EU’s Single Farm Payment and the stability that brings to UK farmers. His case seemed to favour remaining, although officially the CLA is neutral.
Neil Parish MP continued on the theme of stability in the EU. He said that his decision to back the Remain campaign was based entirely on what he considers to be the best interests of the farming industry, stating that his time as an MEP showed him that other European countries are more focused on agriculture than the UK is, as agriculture makes up a smaller proportion of the UK economy than it does in other EU member states. Mr Parish believes this emphasis on agriculture would be lost if we vote to Leave.
He spoke about how the EU has helped British farmers in relation to poultry influenza. Mr Parish then said that in his opinion, were we to Leave then the UK might allow cheap products from outside the EU to flood the market and put British farmers out of business. He also highlighted that UK farms often rely on Eastern Europe for labour, asserting that leaving the EU would make it harder to fill the gaps in the labour market.
Then Jacob Rees-Mogg MP made the case for leaving the EU. After joking that the CLA is as neutral in this debate as the Bank of England, Mr Rees-Mogg countered Mr Parish’s point about Eastern European labour, saying that until the UK joined the EU, it had run its own seasonal workers programs. These were later scrapped by the EU. He then said that the UK was in a strong position to negotiate with its European partners as the UK runs a £15.3bn agricultural trade deficit with the EU. He pointed out that £884 million of Ireland’s agricultural trade went to Britain, whereas Britain sells £448 million to Ireland. This trade dependence on the UK is often sighted by Brexit campaigners as a reason why the EU would want to do a deal with a post Brexit Britain.
Continuing this line of argument, Mr Rees-Mogg said it’s in the interest of the EU to trade with Britain and not the other way around. In opposition to Mr Parish’s point about the UK government being unwilling to support agriculture, he said that the subsidy regime for UK farming began in the 1920s and not when Britain joined the EU in 1973. He then pointed out the risks posed to the EU farming budget by the Euro crisis, suggesting that the farming budget would be cut to meet the demands of stabilising the Euro.
Speaking about the “failures” of the EU agriculture policies, Mr Rees-Mogg mentioned the three crop rule, which forces farmers with more than 30ha of land to grow three different crops, the ban on neo-nicotinoids and the “total failure of the Common Fisheries Policy”, which in his view has devastated fish stocks in the North Sea and destroyed the livelihoods of British fishermen.
Mr Rees-Mogg then called the EU “a failed state” that has destroyed the economy of Southern Europe, and led to 50 per cent unemployment.
Moving onto immigration, Mr Rees-Mogg stated his view that because of the ‘pied piper of Berlin’ (Angela Merkel) the refugee crisis has been exacerbated, leading to thousands dying needlessly.
The debate ended with the summing up for Brexit by George Eustice MP, the Minister for Farming, Food and the Rural Environment. He stressed that leaving the EU would not result in the end of subsidy payments for farmers, that his department was ‘Brexit ready’ and that UK farmers would benefit from the end of cross compliance and the supremacy of EU law. Summing up for Remain, Rebecca Pow MP said that one of the companies in her constituency, Ministry of Cake, is able to export only because of Britain’s EU membership. She made the case for Britain’s ability to fight strongly for British products and values from inside the EU.
Once the debate had concluded, we asked Mr Rees-Mogg what was in his view the strongest reason for voting to Leave. He answered by saying, “it comes down to democracy, is your country Britain or is it Europe?” On the 23rd June it will come down to the British people, who will have to make the momentous decision whether the UK leaves, or remains in, the European Union.
(Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons)