by Glyn Roberts, FUW president
As the blockbuster film stan and Ollie filled cinemas around the country in recent weeks, many of us were reminded of the catchphrase made familiar to generations by Oliver Hardy: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
In the context of Brexit – which whatever your views on leaving or staying in the EU can only be described as a ‘fine mess’ – it is not ‘me’ but ‘us’, and the whole country that we are talking about.
Most frustrating for the FUW is the degree to which every warning we gave about how not to manage the Brexit process seemed to be ignored, and has turned out to be true.
And of course the repercussions are not just in terms of the direct impacts or threats of Brexit: Ministerial resignations have become events that are so frequent they are hardly newsworthy (33 in the past 16 months), the two main political parties are in states of civil war, and Labour and Tory MPs have even resigned from their parties and joined an independent group in Westminster.
Interesting times, certainly, but when you consider that such events are against the backdrop of a ticking Brexit timebomb that could plunge our economy into deep recession and cost hundreds of thousands their livelihoods, ‘a fine mess’ hardly seems to do the situation justice.
The chaos in Westminster makes it clear we were right to tell Theresa May, when we met in July last year, that extending the Article 50 period would be necessary.
Following events of recent months and the European Court of Justice’s legal clarification, our position is now that Article 50 should in fact be withdrawn – not to undermine the outcome of the referendum, but in order to take back full control over the Brexit process and move us away from a position where the rate at which we are hurtling towards a cliff edge has already lead directly to thousands of job losses being announced.
And from our own industry’s point of view, the uncertainty is already being felt; with just weeks to go before Brexit, our eighteen or so Welsh abattoirs and other producers have no idea still what they will need to stamp their produce with for it to be legal in the UK or elsewhere after March 29.
By the time Y Tir arrives with members, we may have some idea of what tariff rates will be charged on imports from other countries after March. However, these need to be approved by parliament.
With this in mind it is worth noting that the FUW has already made robust arguments for maximum tariffs and minimum Tariff Rate Quotas to be applied for our vulnerable agricultural products in meetings with the Welsh UK Governments.
Again, such uncertainty, which we are now hearing has already led to export contracts being lost by UK companies, again making the term ‘mess’ seem like a gross understatement.
Thankfully, the Welsh Government now appear to be
taking contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit seriously – something we first wrote to them about more than three years ago – and Defra also appears to be making plans, particularly for the sheep industry which it’s estimated could be facing a collapse in farmgate prices of 30-50 per cent due to EU import tariffs and trade friction.
Plans to help the sheep industry, arguably one of the most vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit, could come in the form of emergency aid through slaughter premiums, headage payments or a host of other interventions, and we have argued that the promises made to the agricultural industry by Brexiteers, coupled with the way in which the UK Government’s poor management of the Brexit process has led to the current position, makes support and compensation a moral and economic necessity.
We have also made it clear in a meeting last month with George Eustice and the UK Brexit Livestock Group that as Wales has 30 per cent of the UK sheep flock, Wales must be provided with funding which reflects this.
However, we must be mindful of the degree to which an economic downturn for the UK caused by Brexit would reduce tax revenue for government, threatening deeper austerity and cuts than those already felt in recent years.
such dire consequences mean we have continued to work hard, meeting with ministers, MPs, AMs and EU officials to lobby for common sense to prevail, and contingency planning to be ramped up.
To be fair to the Welsh Government, they have little or no control over the Brexit negotiations. However, they do control Welsh domestic policies that affect the daily running of farms, and, as agreed last year by the FUW and NFU Cymru as a number one priority, the Welsh Government must provide stability.
stability does not mean increasing burdens and costs for an industry already facing grave threats due to Brexit – so we have urged Minister Lesley Griffiths to reconsider the plan to introduce what is an all-Wales NVZ in all but name – a move that would increase the number of holdings subject to costly and restrictive rules from around 600 to more than 24,000 (see pages 10 and 11 for more details) in order to tackle what the evidence shows is a wholly disproportionate move to tackle problems on a small minority of farms.
And stability certainly does not mean introducing radical reforms to rural policies and funding without a full understanding of their likely or potential impacts on the hundreds of thousands of Welsh livelihoods that rely on agriculture and our food industries.
These are frustrating times, but let me assure you that the FUW continues to fight for Welsh family farms at every level, through the hard work of our county offices right up to the national and international level.
We take this work very seriously, and ultimately will leave no stone unturned to challenge moves which would add to our industries’ woes at these worrying times. As we all know #FarmingMatters.