Published: 00:01, 10 May 2016
Stuart Agnew, a Norfolk farmer who is the Ukip MEP for the Eastern Counties, knew he had a tough gig trying to persuade rural businessmen from Kent about the benefits of leaving the EU.
“Farage said to me ‘You’ve drawn the short straw because farmers are the toughest nut to crack’,” he said at the Rural plc (Kent) annual dinner last month, held at Farmers’ and Fletchers’ Hall in the City of London.
“Farmers say with their heart they want to leave, but with their head they need the subsidies and fear losing trade. The default is often for the status quo.”
Mr Agnew knew his use of Ashford farmers’ market to sell livestock was not going to curry enough favour in the room. Many farmers export to the Continent and rely on subsidies they receive as members of the EU under the common agricultural policy.
“The common agricultural policy is going down as a proportion of farmers’ income,” he argued.
“When it comes to exports, you want a high-value pound to the euro because that gives you better opportunities, but with new countries joining the euro, who are all poor, the effect is to weaken the euro.
“All these countries will take far more out of the common agricultural policy than they put in.”
In a fiery debate, Mr Agnew’s approach was to highlight other opportunities to export around the world and said trading relations with other EU countries would not be damaged by Brexit.
He made it clear he was unhappy that Britain didn’t have a seat on the World Trade Organisation, despite being the fifth largest economy in the world, instead being represented by an “EU academic from Sweden”.
“We are in a unique position as the EU’s single largest customer,” he said.
“We are in a position to make our own trade deal with them.”
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins, a campaigner for the remain camp, raised concerns that the EU may impose tariffs on imports from Britain if it left the EU.
He said: “The key thing is trade. All the options outside the single market involve tariffs. You cannot believe the Europeans will give us a better deal than they give themselves.
“What will be the cost of engaging in a tariff war? There has been no honest evaluation of what the costs will be of Brexit.”
Yet after the politicians had their debate, many of the farmers in the room were left unimpressed.
Philip Merricks, who has owned and managed Elmley Nature Reserve on Sheppey since 1974, said: “The debate has gone so stale. It is not worth having. You want facts, not political rants.”
Oliver Doubleday, chief executive of GH Dean, based in Tonge, near Sittingbourne, said: “The unfortunate fact is that there is a huge amount of uncertainty over the whole question of Brexit.
“Those in favour of leaving accuse the people who want to remain of scaremongering.
“However, those in favour of leaving are, of course, unable to give a clear, credible description of the trade arrangements that would be put in place within two years.
“So it is equally reasonable to accuse them of being excessively optimistic. It is very difficult to predict what would happen to exchange rates and interest rates under an exit scenario and these have major impact on all our businesses.”
A straw poll of the 30 or so growers and guests at the debate indicated the remain camp were in the lead, although the room had a significant number of abstainers.
George Jessel, a farmer from Brabourne, near Ashford, who sits on the Rural plc (Kent) board, said: “The in camp has it by a whisker, but a lot of people are still undecided.
“The outers offer uncertainty. I don’t feel confident or comfortable about leaving.
“As a farmer, I want security to trade to Europe without any barriers. I want to stay in, but it’s going to go down to the wire. There are a lot of people not prepared to show their hand.”
More by this authorChris Price