George Eustice, Britain’s agriculture minister, has promised farmers will continue to receive support after Brexit. But there are no certainties about the future if the UK leaves the European Union and its prized subsidy system.
Toby Bulgin’s face wrinkles worriedly as he surveys his farm and contemplates the looming vote on Britain’s EU membership that could leave his livelihood hanging in the balance.
The sunbathed fields, bleating lambs and birdsong on his farm in Norfolk, eastern England, seem a long way from the European Union’s corridors of power in Brussels.
But Bulgin fears that if Britain leaves the EU, it could deal a hammer blow to the nation’s already-ailing agriculture sector.
As part of an EU sustainable agriculture drive, it subsidises Bulgin to flood some fields to create a habitat for wading birds, the money compensating for the loss of space in which to rear cattle.
“At the moment, we get our single farm payment, which, I presume, if we come out of the EU, could well end,” he told AFP while inspecting a flock of newborn lambs from his four-wheel drive vehicle.
“I think the government would do trade deals which would be very, very negative for British agriculture,” he said of a post-Brexit world.
“If there is no threat to make them do what they should be doing, they are going to be a nightmare,” he added.
Uncertainty over subsidies
British farms are heavily subsidised by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, with payments flowing from Brussels depending on the size and type of farm, along with its environmental programme.
A typical British farmer receives £27,000 (€34,000) per year ― more than the salary of a new teacher ― according to a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).
Grants account for 30 to 40% of Bulgin’s income, but can far exceed 50% on other farms.
The referendum on whether Britain should to remain in the EU or leave will be held on June 23.
There are no certainties about the future for the nation’s farmers if Britain leaves the EU and the 28-country bloc’s subsidy system.
“There is no such thing as a cheap lunch,” warned Bulgin, plunging his pitchfork into a mound of hay destined for the sheep pen.
“Somewhere along the line, either the consumer has to pay more money for food, or the farmer has to be subsidised to produce cheap food.
“If we don’t have subsidies and the rest of Europe has subsidies, farmers here won’t last,” he added.
Fear of the unknown
Farming minister George Eustice is also in favour of leaving the union, but has struck a more reassuring note.
“The UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support ― or perhaps even more ― as they get now,” he recently told farmers.
But the soothing words have been offset by concerns over post-Brexit uncertainties.
“Farmers are in a bad economic situation to begin with,” said Allan Buckwell, author of the IEEP report.
The instability caused by Britain’s EU divorce negotiations could trigger “a serious depression or recession in British agriculture,” warned the professor.
A thousand farmers recently took to London’s streets with cows and sheep in protest at the collapse of milk prices, which have led to incomes for milk producers plummeting 45% during the last fiscal year, according to government figures.
Cereal producers also suffered a 24% fall in revenue.
“As much as we are trying to cope, the supermarkets and the processors are pushing everything down,” said Yulita Parkes of the campaign group Farmers for Action that organised the protest.
“Farmers now are getting half of what they got two years ago.”
However, opinion is largely divided across the agricultural sector. Within Farmers for Action, support for the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps is evenly split.
Despite annoyance at EU bureaucracy, Buckwell reckons most farmers will ultimately vote to stay in.
“They all know what cheque they are getting,” he said.
Bulgin understands why many want out, but has made up his mind.
“I am British, I’m English,” he said. “My heart says ‘come out of the EU’ but my head says we’ve got to stay in.
“I don’t think the UK will look after agriculture the way the European Union does.”
During his campaign for re-election in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union and organise a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc.
The British PM said he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU after a two-day summit in Brussels where he obtained concessions from the 27 other EU leaders to give Britain “special status” in the EU.
But EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
- 23 June: Referendum.
- 27-28 June : EU summit.
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.