We all know that “Brexit Means Brexit”, now the most famous tautology in political history; but how many of us know that Brexit means “A Greener Britain”?
Well, it could. An impressive alliance of environmentally conscious groups have spied the opportunity that a radical reform of British farm subsidies could restore our much denuded countryside to something of its original health and charm. Rather than having policy primarily aimed at protecting agricultural incomes or, more likely, profits, and raising production for an entirely unnecessary degree of self-sufficiency, the Government’s rural policy could be devoted instead to protection of the environment and biodiversity. The priorities could certainly be reset, and it has long been a mystery why farmers should receive such a substantial degree of insurance against the vagaries of the market and the weather.
Of course, faming is highly cyclical and sensitive, and no one wants to see widespread rural poverty of a kind that once persisted through log agricultural depressions. Even so, there is scope for reform, and the RSPB, WWF-UK, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts are right to alert the wider public to a new way of delivering these objectives.
Leaving the European Union also presents the possibility of buying more food on world markets, exploiting the chance to purchase cheaper foodstuffs from all over the world as and when they appear. Between the end of the Second World War and EEC membership in 1973, and at various points before, free trade was the default position of the British to buying produce abroad. Those often in practice meant steady relationships with reliable low-cost producers mostly in the Commonwealth; butter and lamb from New Zealand, bananas and sugar from the British West Indies, tea from India, wheat from the US and Canada and so on. One of the problems with the EU was that these usually cheap foodstuffs gradually lost their price advantage as they became subject to tariffs, and as other commercial changes undermined the old markets (with some of the most grievous effects being felt in small Caribbean communities such as St Lucia).
The chance has now arrived not to go back to some dream of imperial preference, but certainly to broaden the places we buy our food from. Unsubsidised butter from France would find it difficult to compete, just as French wine has found it difficult to compete, at least on price, with substitutes form Chile, South Africa, California and many other once-unlikely sources.
Then again, such damage to EU agricultural interests would prove a further negative factor in any eventual Brexit deal, making a “soft” exit less likely and the imposition of retaliatory tariffs on British produce going into the EU being raised, even if many of these, such as confectionery, have a much higher proportion of “value added” beyond the basic ingredients, thus more resembling manufactured goods than they do crops. One way or another, the British agricultural sector would most likely be reduced in size as the economy adjusts, which may be something many in the countryside did not foresee when they voted in substantial numbers to leave the EU.
Of course England, at any rate, will not return to being little more than a gigantic forest, before human incursion and then industrialisation rapidly sent the trees off to be turned into the Royal Navy and produced the iron and steel that fed the industrial revolution. However, there is an opportunity here, as well as some dangers. Even the most Europhile of observers would concede that the Common Agricultural Policy was one of the European Union’s less glorious projects, eating the majority of the EU budget. Its days, at least, are numbered.
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