“Hello is that Stephen Carr?” A woman’s voice. “I’m phoning on behalf of the British Institute of Agricultural Consultants (BIAC). We’re holding a one day conference at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire on ‘Brexit, is it for the farming community?’ We wondered if you’d speak in favour of remaining in?”
“That would be a privilege,” I spluttered, “but why me?”
“Well,” she said, “we couldn’t think of a farmer who would speak in favour of staying in so we sent out a circular to our members asking for suggestions. We only got five replies and they all suggested you! But be warned!” she continued ominously. “If you do turn up to speak in favour of the European Union they’ll cut your head off.”
So it was that I agreed to a suicide mission to Warwickshire scheduled for 16 May 16 to expound the virtues of my beloved EU. But this is not the first time I’ve had to don the proverbial flak jacket in defence of Brussels. My farm sign used to be painted in EU blue with the farm name circled by the twelve gold stars. This often had eggs thrown or obscene graffiti painted over it.
I cleaned up or repaired such damage but finally gave up when, during the temporary suspension of UK beef exports to other EU countries during the BSE crisis, someone went to the trouble of axing my sign to the ground. Had I been there to witness the attack I would have pointed out to the assailant that the EU had only banned UK beef (for perfectly sound reasons; as it turned out the beef did pose a health risk) months after the likes of Australia, Canada and the United States has already done so.
Quite why so many of my farming peers are so hostile to the EU has always been a mystery to me. Not only is the farming community especially reliant on EU financial largesse in the form of subsidies but Brussels also provides UK farmers with innumerable other advantages. We might not like EU directives but, provided they are applied uniformly across the EU, would we rather not have these regulations than see countries grant their farmers unfair cost cutting advantages in a race to the bottom in terms of environmental standards and animal welfare?
Just in the past couple of years we have seen the successful introduction and imposition of an EU wide ban of the barren battery hen cage and a partial sow stall ban. Tens of millions of chicken and pigs across the EU are benefiting from these improvements every day. Does anyone seriously think that this could have been achieved without the guiding hand of the European Commission lobbying national parliaments and the European Parliament to bring 27 countries together?
Of course, the cry among British farmers is that it’s only our own government that actually applies the rules. But I’ve heard this said to me by farmers in both France and Italy about their own national governments. In the Italian case it was a farm union leader from the Bologna region who declared, through a translator, that only Italy kept to EU rules properly and used Britain’s foot and mouth and BSE epidemics as evidence that hygiene rules are routinely flouted in the UK.
As farmers we should overcome these ingrained national prejudices and acknowledge the huge collective advantages of EU membership. As a nationally recognised and hugely respected political journalist said to me recently: “Do British farmers really think that they can replace the power of the French farming vote as a lobby? If we leave the EU, the free trade lobby in Westminster will cut British farmers off at the knees.”
This is the message I’ll be taking to the BIAC conference at Stoneleigh. If you’re thinking of coming, the conference has been put back a day to 17 May. This is because farmers and their consultants were obviously all too busy to come on 16 May – it’s the last day for filling in their 2016 basic payment scheme EU subsidy applications.
PS If I don’t make it back it’s been fun writing this column.