British agriculture the real victim of Brexit

Cantillon: Nothing could be more uncertain than the future of British farming

The removal of  subsidies alone will render thousands of  British farms  unviable, potentially altering significant swathes of the countryside. Photograph: David Moir/Reuters

The removal of subsidies alone will render thousands of British farms unviable, potentially altering significant swathes of the countryside. Photograph: David Moir/Reuters

 

Historically, one of the principal functions of the European Union was to protect the interests of farmers.

Even now, more than a third of the bloc’s €140 billion budget goes to agriculture, most of it in the form of direct subsidies to farmers, while farming only accounts for about 10 per cent of economic activity.

European farmers are also protected from free trade by stiff EU tariffs and quotas on food imports from abroad, keeping their prices higher and their market share intact.

Agriculture’s pride of place reflects the fact that it is bound up with traditional ways of life and culture. It is nearly always a sticking point in trade talks.

When the UK leaves the EU in 2019 and seeks to forge trade deals with other jurisdictions, the fate of British farming will be one of the most uncertain outcomes.

The removal of subsidies alone will render thousands of farms unviable, potentially altering significant swathes of the countryside.

Food imports

This is even before the likely arrival of cheaper food imports from the US, the UK’s prime target for a post-Brexit trade deal, which could displace many indigenous food products.

Brexiteers point to the example of New Zealand in the 1970s. In response to the loss of European markets, it radically liberalised its farm sector, before going on to compete successfully on world markets. Either way the shake-up in the UK will be considerable, which makes the near non-existent voice of the UK farm lobby all the more remarkable.

Downing Street ministers barely mention agriculture. Put alongside the concerns of the car industry or the City of London, it doesn’t get a look-in.

All of which does not bode well for Ireland and its attempts to get agriculture on the agenda for trade talks.

According to Ornua boss Kevin Lane, whatever happens, whether we get a hard Brexit or a soft one, Ireland’s farmers will lose. That’s because there’s no place to go but down; down in terms of increased trade barriers and increased red tape, even if we manage to avoid a new tariff regime. A bleak prognosis, but an honest one.

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