Both shadow food and farm minister Huw Irranca-Davies and Scotland’s rural affairs secretary and farm minister Richard Lochhead warned of dire consequences if the UK was to stage a referendum on EU membership and subsequently quit the union.
Irranca-Davies worried about the consequences for investment if the next government promised voters an in-out referendum on EU membership. It could result in a cabinet composed of some ministers who actively campaigned for the UK’s exit from the EU in two year’s time.
“What does that mean for investment in the food sector? It’s devastating,” Irranca-Davies told FoodManufacture.co.uk. “Reform yes, but we can do that within the EU in a positive way … alongside European partners not threatening them with the club of exit.”
‘Leading, not threatening to come out’
The UK’s EU membership offered a seat at the top table with the ability to shape policy to protect not just the union but Britain too, he said. Stripped of membership, the UK would lack the ability to frame policy and risk losing important export markets. “This [the EU] is still our biggest market on our doorstep. We think the argument is strong that we should be there leading, not threatening to come out.”
Listen to the shadow minister’s comments in full at the end of this article.
Lochhead was more outspoken – describing an EU referendum as the biggest threat facing British farming. Quitting the EU would result in the farming industry losing Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds worth £20bn between 2014 and 2020, he argued.
“Westminster’s in-out referendum on the EU is a £20bn gamble with the future of Scottish and British farming,” he said. “The CAP is a protective shield for UK agriculture. Leaving the EU would mean leaving the CAP. It would be folly to think the UK government would fund farming at anywhere near the existing levels from domestic budgets and so the referendum is the biggest threat to agriculture in this country.”
‘Referendum is the biggest threat’
But he also argued for the CAP to be simplified and to focus on sustainable food production and economic growth.
Environment secretary Liz Truss told the conference urgent reform of the EU was needed to reduce the regulatory burden placed on business. “Food and farming is one of the areas of our national life than is most burdened by red tape – much of it unnecessary,” said Truss.
“I am determined to see change at European level, which is the source of 80% of our rules in the case of environmental regulation alone.”
But the UK Independence Party (UKIP) predicted trade with the EU would be unaffected by the UK’s departure from the union, while British business would be free from the yoke of Brussels bureaucracy. “Only 6% of our exports from the UK overall are consumed in the EU, so we do not need high expenditure on everything we produce, just to satisfy one relatively small market,” said Agnew.
“We [the UK] are the EU’s biggest single customer. We can drive a very good bargain as far as trading relationships go and this is what we will do.”