Supremacy versus subsidies: UK farmers divided over Brexit
The financial impact of leaving the EU is focusing minds as referendum looms
MPs Yvette Cooper and Jess Phillips pose with staff at Palfrey Sure Start Centre as they join the Labour In battle bus to campaign in the West Midlands. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Anthea McIntyre is in full flight as I enter the Memorial Hall in the secluded village of Ewyas Harold near the Welsh border.
The redoubtable West Midlands MEP is in the midst of listing the number of EU agricultural standards Norway must meet despite its not being a member of the EU.
“The sustainable use of plant protection products, the nitrates directive, the water framework directive . . . all of these apply to Norwegian farmers and to ours,” she tells the room of constituents. “If you want to be part of the single market, you have to comply with EU rules. It makes sense to be at the table shaping those rules.”
Local Ukip MEP Jim Carver disagrees. “The EU is becoming more and more bureaucratic,” he says. “We don’t need this increasing burden of regulation. We will get on better outside of the European Union. ”
The parish hall debate organised by local Conservative MP Jesse Norman typifies the kind of conversations taking place across the country ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. But the three politicians here are facing a demanding audience.
Herefordshire is one of the most rural counties in Britain. Agriculture dominates the region, where miles of asparagus fields and huge fruit farms line the quiet, country roads. Brexit and its impact on agriculture are very much occupying minds here.
Farm paymentsJulian Partridge
“Two years ago, in the local branch of the NFU [National Farmers’ Union], we had quite a big meeting where we asked everyone did they want to come out of the European Union. Only one person put their hand up then,” he says.
“But I think since then, whether it’s just a vague feeling of discontent, that’s completely changed. There’s a lot more people going to vote out.”
One reason, he believes, is the current climate of low prices in the agricultural sector. “It’s a difficult time for farming. When that happens, people often tend to blame somebody else.”
Thirty miles north in Leominster, 37-year-old Richie Thomas says he is still deciding how to vote.
“My heart says ‘out’ because I don’t like the idea or principle of a federal Europe, but as a farmer, I’m aware that historically the British government has never really backed agriculture. They don’t consider it because it’s such a small part of GDP,” he says.
Despite a widespread assumption that farmers would support continued membership of the EU given the high level of farming subsidies provided by Brussels, the farming community is split on the issue.
Significantly, farming minister George Eustice is backing a Brexit, joining dozens of his Conservative Party colleagues in defying leader David Cameron on the issue.
“We would do far better as a country if we ended the supremacy of Europe and shaped new fresh-thinking policies that really deliver for our agriculture,” he told the NFU annual conference earlier this year.
Criticism of the disproportionate regulation and excessive red tape demanded by Brussels is a mantra echoed elsewhere in the Leave camp.
Stuart Agnew, a Norfolk farmer and Ukip MEP, has long argued that too many unnecessary EU regulations are stifling innovation and the competitiveness of British farmers.
But other prominent voices in British agriculture disagree. While the NFU is not campaigning in the referendum, it has said it believes the interests of farmers are best served by remaining in the EU.
But others are doubtful. Given Britain’s historic opposition to the concept of agricultural subsidies around the EU table, many farmers are sceptical about any British government’s commitment to subsidising agriculture in the long term.
They also say that, unlike in Ireland where the farming lobby has huge influence, farmers represent a small share of voters in this increasingly urbanised country (the fact that Cameron and lead Brexiteer Boris Johnson are due to appear on the BBC’s popular Countryfile programme on Sunday suggests every vote counts).
Anthea McIntyre, herself a Conservative MEP, is doubtful about the commitments by the Leave campaign.
“It’s all very well to think, ‘oh well, our government will continue to subsidise farmers to the same extent if we leave’, but when you look at the competing pressures of the NHS, of welfare, and also the fact that the bulk of the population don’t live in the countryside, with the best will in the world, I can see even a Conservative government isn’t going to support farmers to the same extent as they are at the moment,” she says.
For some farmers, however, the benefits of continued membership outweigh the drawbacks. Anthony Snell, a large fruit-grower, says that while he has yet to make a final decision, he is “more in than out”.
“We rely on seasonal labour from eastern Europe, because we can’t get enough British people to do those jobs. They come for about six months and do a valuable job. They pay taxes, benefit our economy hugely and then they go home. They don’t want to stay in this country and they don’t take jobs from us,” he says.
Others fear that a British exit could hasten the demise of British agriculture, much as the mining industry disappeared.
As the campaign enters its final stretch, assessing what a Brexit will mean for the farming industry will be a key concern for British farmers.