Anne McIntosh: Trade with EU is vital to our farmers

Will the EU referendum outcome lead to higher or lower food prices?
Will the EU referendum outcome lead to higher or lower food prices?

AS we enter the final phase of the EU referendum campaign, I will be meeting farmers today at Thirsk cattle market to discuss their concerns.

Farmers work hard to put food on our tables, generate thousands of jobs locally and supply a hospitality industry that is integral to Yorkshire’s economy. They want to understand the implications of this historic decision that they are being expected to make on June 23. They want a fair deal, a fair price, a level playing field and access to trade markets.

The EU provides a market of 500 million consumers, but more than that. We joined a customs union with tariff- free trade... our natural market is with our current EU partners.

Other markets with which we would hope to trade already have close links with the EU so why would they seek preferential trading agreements with us?

Commonwealth countries already benefit from the EU ACP Agreement so would not necessarily seek bilateral agreements with us. And America has said that we would be at the back of the queue for any agreement we might seek.

The three choices are really what we already have; the arrangements enjoyed by Norway, Switzerland and Iceland or negotiating access with tariffs through the World Trade Organisation.

Farmers and growers also need access to a ready pool of workers for help with livestock, as well as picking and packing fruit and vegetables. The NHS is also heavily dependent on doctors and nurses from other EU countries who are well qualified clinically and speak good English. To lose such a pool of talent on our doorstep without any obvious alternative seems risky.

The question is this. Why would we throw away the best trading access through a single market and a customs union which gives tariff-free entry for all our goods, in favour of an alternative which is far from clear?

Even Norway, Iceland and Switzerland have to abide by the rules of the EU to access its markets. Furthermore, the EU Commission – and France – have warned we would not be welcomed with open arms if we vote to leave the EU.

The domestic level of farm support following an eventual Brexit is by no means clear and would depend on the health of the British economy. The pound already fell dramatically at the start of the referendum campaign, as did the Stock Market.

For farmers, what are the alternatives? A market of over 500 million – or being an outsider seeking a market? There is no guarantee our farm goods would be admitted tariff-free into the EU.

Fears about the level of regulation from Europe is for the most part displaced. Those against remaining in the EU argue that it is the regulations which hamper our businesses. However I know from experience, as a MEP and MP, that these regulations do not all come from the EU. When they do, they are gold-plated by Whitehall officials and applied more onerously in the UK than anywhere else.

I have spent hours considering EU directives which were six pages long when they left Brussels and were padded out to 60 pages in Whitehall. The EU Abbatoirs Directive was a case in point and led to the closure of many smaller slaughterhouses – to devastating effect when it came to both the BSE and foot- and-mouth crises.

Knowing the wit and intelligence of the Sir Humphreys who run Whitehall, I do not see how regulation would reduce.

Of course Britain and Yorkshire would survive if we pulled out of the European Union, but we would be greatly diminished. We would remain part of Nato but we have played a unique role to strengthen the European arm of Nato, together with our EU partners.

My mother grew up in Copenhagen when Denmark was occupied by the German army. To lose your freedom as a teenager is a devastating experience. I am convinced that pooling the resources of coal and steel through the creation of the Common Market in the early 1950s prevented further aggression.

Europe provides a continent of opportunities. I have worked and studied in other European countries and greatly benefited from the experience.

For farmers, the EU provides a tariff- free open market for their goods and products of 500 million people. Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, it could take up to five years to determine what the alternative would look like.

To me, the decision to remain is a very clear and a very compelling one. I hope the arguments will speak for themselves.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering is a Tory peer and former chairman of Parliament’s environment select committee. She was previously the MP for Thirsk and Malton.