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Dairy Stories: The EU Dilemma

20 June 2016

The upcoming vote on our membership in the European Union has posed a large dilemma for people all over the UK, writes John Wigley in his regular dairy farming blog.

A few weeks ago I took to twitter to join the debate and find out some of the arguments surrounding the issue. I must admit to always being sceptical about our relationship with the EU.

Watching the debate unfold on twitter, it was clear to see that many others had similar reservations and uncertainty about the future. At that point I was probably 60 per cent out - but not completely sold. That was until I entered a discussion with an out and out remain-er. The sort of person that could only see the one side of the coin.

"No one has ever given me,” he declared, "One good reason why we should leave the EU."

I stared at the screen in disbelief, feeling incensed at his ignorance. Surely even the most ardent Europhile must admit there are some problems with our membership of the Union?

I decided to reply with my best reason (democracy) followed by another (regulation) and then another (world trade) and soon found myself overwhelmed with reasons to leave the organisation. I bombarded the individual for an hour with tweets about my Euro frustrations. It was a moment of realisation for me and put me firmly in the out camp.

My comments obviously didn't go unnoticed as the following day the Leave campaign contacted me and asked me to write as a farmer why I thought we would be better off outside the EU. I accepted their invitation and endeavoured to create an article of no more than 500 words on my view on leaving the EU. It was the most difficult piece I have ever written. Much like my encounter on twitter I was overwhelmed with arguments to leave and five hundred words was just not enough, when I felt as though I could give five hundred reasons.

In reality I choose the most obvious and powerful arguments to me as a dairy farmer, starting with the common agricultural policy.

This is what I wrote -

On June the 23rd I will cast my vote on whether I wish my country to leave the European Union. As a dairy farmer in receipt of subsidies from the common agricultural policy (CAP), this is a big decision for me to make.

Farming under the CAP has been chaotic to say the least. In the early days in Europe we were encouraged, via subsidies, to produce as much food as possible. This inevitably resulted in cereal mountains and milk lakes making the news.

In 1985 the EU intervened, imposing milk quotas across the community and the UK lost 15 per cent of its production to other member states. The knock on effects were severe. At our farm 20 productive cows were sent to slaughter. All over the country farmers were forced to do the same and herds that were, now, too small to be viable were sold.

The UK was left with less dairy farmers, less cows, less processing capacity and a larger trade deficit which stands today at £1.2 billion.

It took until 1999 for a radical change in the subsidy regime and environmental based subsidies to arrive.The change away from production subsidies was a step in the right direction but it wasn't long before the EU were interfering once more with the Renewables Energy Act, allowing subsidised energy crops to be grown for producing electricity. The clamour to grow crops for the new subsidy caused a huge demand for arable ground in this area, doubling farm rents and forcing less profitable enterprises, such as dairy, beef, sheep and cereals, off the land. Some of my rented ground went from £100 to £200 /acre overnight.

However, much of EU governance is less visible, far more subtle but no less problematic. In the office, I have a stack of books three feet high, telling me how to farm, EU style.

From cattle passports to crop rotations - they have a say in it all. There are directives for virtually everything. Which crops we plant, on which fields and in which order. The volume of milk the herd produces and the equipment we use to do so. How we cultivate the soil, the type of machinery used. Where we buy protein, fertilisers, medicines and how we apply them - it is all dictated to us by EU policy. A policy designed to span all the cultures across the whole continent. A blue print that is designed for everyone but suits absolutely no one. Rules and regulations across the member states but many do not comply.

Take the failed milk quota regime for instance - the Italians still owe €1.34 billion for their non implementation of the regime from1995 to 2009. On the other hand DEFRA were fined for attempting to simplify the single farm payment regime and handed over millions for their error within the year. Why the difference?

As a farmer I deplore the interference from a distant, unaccountable, organisation. Are these the best people to tell us what crops we should be planting or how I should be milking my cows? Of course not. The days of the distant EU governance must come to an end. I have spent my lifetime making decisions for the sake of EU officialdom, rather than the cows, my farm and my customers and I want it to change.

I am out.

That article was written for the leave campaign.

Of course there is much more to the European project than the CAP and I do recognise that the single market has dropped most trading barriers inside the EU which we have benefitted from.

Conversely there is also a huge trading area outside of the EU which we can trade with. It is worth pointing out that there are 2.3 billion people in our own commonwealth who would like a tariff free arrangement with the UK, outside of the EU. To put this opportunity in perspective, we currently do more business with the Republic of Ireland than we do with the Commonwealth.

When it comes to trade there are no shortage of options, so why are we so focused on the only continent, that has barely grown economically in the last ten years? It makes no sense.

That said, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that we already have a trading relationship with the EU. Unpicking that relationship and its 43 years of integrationist law, for a looser arrangement, is going to be a monumental project in itself.

There are many that would argue that this is reason enough to remain and if it were the only issue, I would agree. But for me, the matter of self governance and sovereignty outflank my farming frustrations by some measure. The dilution of our democracy over the last forty three years has provided a far greater danger than any short term economic shock. I want my kids to grow up in a democracy where their vote can make a difference and there is a democratic mechanism that works, so that our rulers can be removed and replaced. Brussels does not provide that.

The European Union’s laws and directives which we abide by, are spawned by an unelected commission of 28 members, who are democratically unaccountable.

They spew out over half of the UK’s rules and are enforced by the European court of Justice. Both of these institutions take precedent over our Parliament and produce laws and directives that end up in various forms, sat on my desk. Rules that are not designed around my business, environment, farm or culture, that are designed to cover all circumstances but rarely suit any. It is hardly surprising that their legislation is often so hopelessly unworkable.

I can not remember any time in my life when I have been so over whelmed by so many rules and regulations as now - or felt so disconnected to the powers that be. Which is ironic - ironic because we are supposed to be living in a democracy. And in a democracy, politicians take instructions from the electorate not the other way round.

That is why things have to change and I will be voting and hoping for Brexit on June 23rd.

John Wilkes

John Wigley
Freelance journalist

John Wigley has been farming in Shropshire for 13 years. On his farm, nestling below the Welsh hills, John keeps about 330 Holstein milking cows here, as well as dairy heifers and a small flock of sheep which belong to his oldest son, James.

The herd is fed largely on a rotational grass based system and housed between November and March. Target yields are 7000-7500 litres per cow but the cost per litre is of more concern than the yield.

John's website,, aims to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. You can also follow him on facebook or twitter.

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