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Angela Smith MP: Why I’ll be voting to stay In on 23 June

Guest Blogger, 18 March 2016

There is now less than a hundred days to go before the referendum on whether or not the UK should remain a member of the European Union.  Less than a hundred days, then, to win the argument for an outward looking United Kingdom which understands that it is stronger, safer and better off as a fully signed up member of the world’s largest single market.

A lot of criticism has been levelled at the referendum campaign so far, with claims that it has been lacking factual content.  Both sides, in and out, stand accused of engaging in the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare, rather than engaging in a serious attempt to set out the key arguments in order to enable voters to make a reasoned decision on June 23rd.

This is unfair.  Indeed, one could argue the opposite, that the first few weeks of the campaign have succeeded in embedding at the heart of the debate the key facts and the key themes.  There is a much greater awareness, for instance, of the fact that the European single market is made up of a population of 500 million people.  We all know, with much greater clarity than was the case before, that Britain does indeed make a net contribution to the EU budget.  We are all reminded that the free movement of labour does not stand alone and that it is accompanied by other vital freedoms relating to capital, goods and services, with standardization at the heart of trade within the market.

All this helps to profile the key issues when it comes to making a decision.  Will the UK be able to secure trade deals with EU member states in the event of Brexit?  How long will they take, and will they give us terms of trade which compare favourably with what we enjoy now, as a member state?  Will trade with the rest of the world be more easily facilitated if we leave the EU?  And what kind of trade deals could we secure with countries such as the US and Canada? Would we face barriers to trade that are harder to remove from a Brexit position?

These questions will remain at the heart of the campaign between now and June, but they do need to be placed in the context of what kind of economy the UK wants to develop to secure its long term prosperity and well-being.

Let’s look at our agri-food industry, by way of example.

In 2014, the UK exported £12.8bn of agri-food products, with 73% of this total destined for other European member states.  According to the NFU, in its excellent report UK Farming’s relationship with the EU, the value of our agri-food exports globally have more than doubled in the last decade, thanks to the deals negotiated by the EU. Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers accounts for 55% of UK total income for farming.

It is true that tariffs are a part of everyday life for UK agriculture and UK consumers.  Tariffs are placed on imports and exports from outside the EU where of course there is no trade deal in place. This is the basis for the argument made by Brexit supporters that food could be cheaper for consumers if we leave the EU.  Such thinking is short-sighted, however, and ignores the inconvenient fact that unless trade deals are successfully negotiated with any number of countries outside of the EU, these cost-reduction benefits are unlikely to materialise.  In the meantime, we would lose access to the world’s largest agricultural marketplace without any guarantee that we could re-establish favourable trade conditions via a series of bilateral trade deals with EU member states.

There is, however, another important perspective to this debate about the future of our agricultural industry.  One of the distinguishing features of EU agricultural policy in recent years has been the significant progress made in terms of raising environmental standards and animal welfare standards within the industry.  Not only, therefore, do we enjoy the security of knowing that regulations relating to food safety and animal health are maintained to a very high level across the EU, we are also increasingly seeing advances made in relation to finding the right balance between the health of our natural environment and the productivity of the agricultural sector.  And we’re not just talking about a few extra hedgerows here; fundamentally important matters, such as the need for agricultural practices to avoid pollution of our water courses, have been the focus of EU policy making in recent years.

The debate about the impact of Brexit on our farmers and on our countryside is not, therefore, one that should focus narrowly on the potential for trade deals and the imposition or non-imposition of tariffs.  One of the major benefits of EU membership has been the progressive move towards higher environmental and animal welfare standards that will, in the long term, help us move towards a more sustainable and hence a more secure future for our farming industry, while at the same time it helps us progress towards restoring the health of our countryside.

So there we have it. Our economic choices in relation to EU membership cannot be reduced to a bargain basement approach to the future of UK plc.  We are better than that and we have recognized over the years that our future is best served not just by securing economic development, but also the environmental improvements vital to ensuring the sustainability of our economy.  Farming provides just one example of how that works in an EU context, but one could refer to a range of other ways in which EU environmental policy is increasingly driving member states towards economic development that leads the way internationally – the green economy, for example, and the Circular Economy Package.

Let us, therefore, reframe the debate.  Voters on 23rd June should ask themselves not just whether the UK will be better off financially in or out of the EU, but also how our choice will impact on the more fundamental questions relating to the long-term ability of our natural environment to service the way of life we take so much for granted.  For me, when the choice is framed in this way, there is only one way to vote, and that is to stay IN.

Angela Smith is the Member of Parliament for Penistone & Stocksbridge and a member of the Labour Party. 


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