Today
Sun 1 August 2021

As the details of Boris Johnson’s trade deals are unveiled, two farmers spoke to Byline TV about the pessimistic post-Brexit future of their industry

“Farmers will be better off if we vote to leave the EU.”

This was the promise on a Vote Leave campaign poster during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign – flanked with a picture of the Conservative MP and then Farming Minister George Eustice, who has since been promoted to Environment Secretary.

“EU regulations make life hard for the UK’s farmers,” Eustice said. “If we have the courage to Vote Leave and take back control, we would be free to think again and could achieve so much more for farmers and our environment.”

These vague, evidence-light assertions peppered the Brexit campaign – and have become a yardstick for the UK’s performance now that it has formally departed the EU.

The myth of Brexit foretold a revival of traditional, manual industries and the areas that incubated them. By shedding the stifling bureaucracy of Brussels, a renaissance of farming, fishing and manufacturing could be achieved, according to Brexiters, multiplying the wealth of so-called ‘left behind’ towns.

As pollster Deborah Mattinson writes in her book Beyond the Red Wall – which tracks Labour’s loss at the 2019 General Election – people in former industrial communities were led to believe that Boris Johnson would “bring the weaving sheds back into use in Accrington, reopen the mills, extend Darlington station, improve transport links across the whole of the north, create youth clubs and training opportunities, get us making things again. And growing things. And fishing things”.

“I voted to leave, I think a lot of the younger generation of farmers did,” Tom Collins, a fourth-generation farmer in Malmesbury, told Byline TV. “We voted for change… Change that I hoped would allow me to grow my business.”

But this vision has shown few signs of manifesting. Liz Webster, whose husband comes from a farming family, said that the decline of the sector post-Brexit will be compared to the “decimation of the coal mines”. Liz and her husband currently farm roughly 1,700 acres near Swindon.

For fishermen, this has already been witnessed. Contrary to what Brexiters claimed, leaving the EU has in fact added red tape in the form of stringent checks on exports. As explained by oystermen Tom Haward, this has been debilitating for small suppliers. “With extra paperwork comes cost – and cost will most likely kill our customer base,” he wrote for Byline Times.

Farmers Tom Collins and Liz Webster speak to Byline TV

As for farming, the threat posed is by too little red tape. A point of concern and contention, through which these problems have crystallised, is the UK’s trade deal with Australia, which is currently being negotiated.

As highlighted by Otto English, Australia is the second-largest producer of beef and lamb in the world. There has been credible speculation, therefore, that Australia will insist on access to the UK market for its suppliers. Aside from the additional competition to domestic farmers, such an agreement could put at risk the UK’s food standards.

Indeed, Australian meat is treated with growth hormones that have long been banned in the EU. The Government has promised that its trade deal will not “undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards” and that “hormone-fed beef is banned in the UK and will not be allowed to enter the UK market – this won’t change under any free trade agreement”.

However, farmers are sceptical. “Without a doubt, these trade deals will see farming shrink considerably,” Liz Webster told Byline Times. “Small and medium-sized farms will not be able to survive this… We’ll be looking at British food becoming very, very rare.”

Tom Collins is not quite so damning – although he believes that the proposed Australia deal “isn’t exactly the panacea I was hoping it was going to be… It is a bit of a worrying time for farming”. 

He is wary that Brexit, which he voted for, might end up jeopardising his business and that the “changes coming might force me to stop”.

“I don’t want to stop, I’m proud of what I do and I’m proud of our farm, and if I’m forced to stop it will be a great shame,” he added.

To further complicate matters, the issue of consumer standards – particularly in meat production – is one of the major stumbling blocks to a free trade deal with the United States. While America, like Australia, has lower standards than the EU and the UK, the US Trade Representative has published its demands for a US-UK trade deal, which insists on comprehensive market access for US agricultural products.

This presents a distinct threat to both farmers and the very nature of farming in the UK. “We’ll be become like America,” said Liz. “Unlike these cute British farms, it will be industrial factories.”

These contradictions are embedded within the idea of Brexit – an expensive, complex policy sold on simple, emotive slogans. Boris Johnson’s EU trade deal made it clear that Britain sought a rupture with the continent – a future outside the single market and customs union (Northern Ireland aside).

However, the Government also insists that it does not intend to embrace the lower standards and weaker regulations that underpin markets outside the EU. As it currently stands, the UK is neither willing to align with the EU nor the rest of the world, and risks slipping through the cracks into economic irrelevance.

“If he cared about farmers he wouldn’t be supporting Brexit,” Liz, told Byline TV when asked about the Prime Minister, who led the Vote Leave campaign. “This Brexit is the worst option for agriculture, for industry, for fishing and our finance sector. All of it has been thrown under the Brexit bus.”

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