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Comment: Brexit, Boris, and boxing in U.K. farmers

When U.K. farmers voted heavily for Brexit it was an act of either faith or foolishness

Events, like stars, can at times align just enough for you to glimpse your destiny. If you’re lucky, that sneak peek is the critical break you need for success; if you’re unlucky, the starry view spins off into the universe unseen.

Farmers in the United Kingdom got that peek after the June 2016 vote that approved Great Britain, Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s exit from the rule-heavy, bureaucratic European Union (EU). The glimpse wasn’t exactly pretty but U.K. farmers, tired of EU rules and restrictions from Brussels, favoured Brexit by a large majority.

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Last December, that vote was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sweeping Conservative Party win in national elections. A week later, Parliament set Jan. 31 as Brexit’s “leave date.” It also gave Johnson wide latitude to negotiate bilateral trade deals with both the 28-nation — soon to be 27 — EU bloc and the U.K.’S closest ally, the United States.

Johnson announced he’d have trade treaties with both (claiming a U.S.-U.K. deal will lead the way) in place by Dec. 31. It was brash talk. It was, however, exactly what U.K. farmers and manufacturers wanted to hear.

But talk, even in proper English, is cheap and Johnson’s unrealistic timetable didn’t address U.K. agriculture’s two, key concerns: What will he do to ensure farmers aren’t shut out of European markets while also protecting domestic markets against cheap food imports?

U.K. farmers should be concerned, writes Joe Stanley, a “third-generation arable and beef farmer” in Leicestershire, in the Jan. 14 issue of Farmers Weekly, an authoritative U.K. farm publication.

“According to official statistics,” he notes, “16 per cent of farms made losses between 2014 and 2017. A quarter of farming households live below the poverty line, 61 per cent of farm income derives from direct payments and 86 per cent of total farm profits consist of CAP support.”

Those last two points are buckets of cold water on what farmers now want Parliament to provide to stay even with their soon-to-be competitor neighbours who continue to float on the EU river of Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, payments U.K. farmers are about to give up.

What will they do? What would you do if, like those farmers, 86 per cent of your farm’s total profit vanishes Jan. 31?

Facing that cliff, why exactly did U.K. farmers heavily favour Brexit?

Because, Stanley explains, those very same figures represent an unwelcome, crippling dependency: “… many farmers live a desperate existence, kept afloat only by the current level of support from the CAP.”

And, under CAP, “The price we receive for a tonne of wheat hasn’t changed since the 1980s, yet the percentage of disposable household income spent on food has fallen from 30 per cent to eight per cent… This is a terrific achievement — borne by the overdrafts of farmers.”

As such, Stanley surmises, the real problem isn’t the EU or its CAP; “(I)t’s public demand for ever-cheaper food.”

Exactly, but jumping out of CAP with no alternative in place is either a supreme act of faith or an extreme act of foolishness. Prime Minister Johnson has promised to step into the breach, Stanley wryly notes, with a new program to “end direct support for farmers, replacing it with as-yet-amorphous (but much reduced) ‘public money for public goods.’”

Right now, however, Johnson’s promises are political fog. Worse, a trainload of trouble is headed his way. A Jan. 10 analysis by Bloomberg Economics shows Brexit has cost the U.K. economy $170 billion already and, by year’s end, that cost will rise to a staggering $260 billion.

That means sometime in June, Brexit’s opening costs to the U.K. will surpass its net, 47-year contribution — about $230 billion — to the EU.

After that they’re in uncharted space searching for stars to show them a way home.

The Farm & Food File is published weekly in newspapers throughout Canada and the U.S.

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