Brexit: ‘Taking farmers for fools’

U.K. farmers find themselves torn between their innate conservatism and 
economic interests that may be best served by staying in the EU

With electronic ignition, fuel injection and more computing power than the space shuttle, today’s cars and trucks never backfire. Our politicians — with less horsepower and far less memory — often still do.

The latest may be British Prime Minister David Cameron who, during his 2015 re-election campaign, promised British voters a referendum on whether the United Kingdom (U.K.) should remain in or exit out the 28-nation European Union (EU).

Back then, the idea looked like a winner and, indeed, Cameron’s Conservative Party rode it to victory. Few pundits, however, thought British voters would ever choose to leave, or “Brexit,” the world’s largest democratic union and second-largest economy.

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Now, however, leaving is a real possibility. Recent polls show the June 23 referendum neck and neck and Cameron’s winning promise last year looks like a warm beer this year. He had hoped the threat of a referendum would force the EU to grant the U.K. “special status” on tough issues like immigration and the EU’s costly Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP.

It didn’t and, win, lose or draw on Thursday, won’t. But now he — and the U.K. — is stuck with something no one really wanted.

Caught in the middle are U.K. farmers. Like their North American counterparts, most are, by birth and disposition, political and economic conservatives. British journalist Nigel Farndale, who writes for the right-leaning weekly The Spectator, recently described U.K. farmers as “TBC, True Blue Conservative,” the stiff backbone in Cameron’s body politic.

But, noted Farndale in a Feb. 28 column, “(T)he Brexit debate is leaving our True Blue farmers deeply conflicted. On the one hand, without EU subsidies, many of them would go out of business. On the other, their Tory (Conservative) instincts tell them that subsidies are a socialist idea, the opposite of free trade, and therefore plain wrong.”

Farndale, a former Yorkshire farm boy himself, urged farmers to vote to leave the EU because it makes “financial sense.”

“Just to continue paying farmers the same (CAP) subsidy as they are getting now,” he explained, “would cost the British taxpayer half as much, because, at present, we pay £6 billion (US$8.5 billion) a year into the CAP, but our farmers get only £3 billion (US$4.3 billion) back.”

As such, he added, “British farmers are effectively subsidizing their competitors: the French, by far the biggest beneficiary of the CAP, receive three times as much.”

Few things fire up U.K. farmers more than the idea that French farmers are getting the upper hand in anything. Farndale’s math, though, failed to stoke indignation in the English countryside. On June 14, Farmers Weekly, the respected U.K. ag publication, released poll results that showed 46 per cent of “those questioned said the interests of British agriculture would be best served by the U.K. remaining in the EU, while more than one-third (35.5 per cent) indicated it would be better to leave.”

The reason U.K. farmers would vote to stay in the EU, noted the magazine, is that “only 17.1 per cent” of farmers polled thought financial “support for farming” — today’s CAP payment level — “would remain at broadly similar levels in the event of Brexit, while 44.5 per cent thought it would not…”

In short, U.K. farmers may be “conservative” in name and ideology but, thank you very much, they’re not trading their rock-solid EU subsidies for vague promises of equal payments from London.

Liberal politicians and left-leaning U.K. farm leaders agree; all say that tomorrow’s bird-in-hand EU subsidies will be worth far more than today’s cheap talk by London’s squawking crows.

Or, as reported by Farmers Weekly, “Former NFU (National Farmers Union) president Sir Peter Kendall, who is campaigning for the U.K. to remain part of the EU, said, ‘leave’ campaigners were ‘taking farmers for fools.’”

Well, someone is going to look foolish after the Brexit vote June 23 and, if the growing “leave” trend continues, that someone will be Conservative Party Leader David Cameron and his ah-we’re-not-ready-to-leave conservative farm backers.

Farmers might take note because sometime — and maybe that sometime is 2016 — you get exactly what you ask for even when you weren’t serious when you asked.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada.

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