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EU Referendum: Fisheries and Farming Policies Will Remain Under Democratic Control If We Stay 'In'

15/06/2016 09:39 | Updated 15 June 2016

Many critically important issues affecting our future wellbeing have failed to get more than a mention in the EU referendum debate thus far - farming, fisheries and the security and sustainability of our food supply being just some of them.

I say mention, because I've often heard Brexiters saying "we should leave because then we'll get back control of 'our fish'" - one of their statements that I've never yet failed to get a laugh when
quoting, since the idea of a fish with a passport tucked under its fin, securing its national identity while being able only to swim in circles, is inherently laughable.

Nonetheless, we've seen little serious debate on the issue.

The National Farmers' Union has concluded that the interests of farmers are best served by a remain vote (unsurprising when it is estimated only 10% of farms could survive without subsidies), as have many in the food production chain, right up to the Cornish Pasty Association, allowing many jokes along the lines that the Brexit campaign is looking flaky.

So all credit to the independent research group UK in a Changing Europe which last week hosted a session on the food, farming and fisheries at which I spoke.

It was an opportunity to address not just direct food issues, but broader debates around our place in the EU.

I pointed out that when we talk about democracy, what's been insufficiently drawn out is the key role that Britain has - with its fellow union members - in making decisions about EU policies and directives.

These are not "Brussels' decisions", they're our decisions. Democratically elected politicians, who can be influenced by our campaigning and lobbying, decide what changes should be made, what new ideas introduced.

Take the Common Fisheries Policy. This was substantially reformed in 2013, producing what Friends of the Earth, among others, describe as, now, an effective, science-based approach that isn't perfect, but is clearly far better than what's gone before and on which it's hard to
imagine a go-it-alone Britain improving.

One key aspect of the reformed European policy was the abolition of the wasteful, environmentally abusive practice of discarding fish catches. A campaign in which many Britons, famous and not-so-famous, played a prominent role, was a key factor in that decision.

The Fisheries Policy gives lie to the common claim that the EU is unreformable - one of its important planks has been significantly reformed in a democratic way.

If there are cases where EU policies have failed to adequately represent British interests and British views, well blame has to be in part laid at inadequate efforts by our UK representatives. Nigel Farage MEP sits on the fisheries committee but only attended one of 42 meetings.

The second key point to draw from the discussion was that many of the criticisms of how things are now, how they operate on the ground and the impact that they have, blame the European Union for decisions and choices made far closer to home.

I pointed to the failure to cap the CAP, to limit the level of payments to large landowners such as the Duke of Westminster, something that's within the power of the British government, should it choose to do so.

And while the failures of the British government computer system in delivering CAP payments has directed widespread anger and frustration towards the scheme, this is our failure, not a result of EU membership.

Criticism of the implementation of the Fisheries Policy in Britain often focuses on the allocation to large corporations, not our own, small-scale, job-generating, environmentally preferably small fishers - but that's a decision of Westminster, one made - inexplicably - by our own government.

One issue that was drawn out in the discussion was how different nations in the UK would have to come to new common policies between them - whether on farming or fishing - likely to be the cause of long and bitter wrangling. The views of the Westminster government on genetically modified organisms in agriculture, for example, is directly opposite to that of the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Yet what also emerged in the discussion was the need to be consider the big issues - how can we secure food supplies and sustainable agriculture to supply them far into the future.

The perspective that emerges from Europe currently is far more encouraging than that in Westminster. Whether it's the neonicotinoid ban (to which the British government has had to be dragged by the science and public opinion), or the still evolving question of the treatment of glyphosate, the EU has proved far more robust against corporate lobbying and prepared to listen to concerns than Westminster - and that's to all of our good.

More, we've much to learn from other European countries, who've maintained small-scale, job-generating, localised, healthy agriculture and food production far more than Britain. The EU Protected Food Names scheme is in part a product of that understanding, something that
surviving British traditions, including the pasty, have benefitted from. That Britain has relatively few of these products is perhaps in part a product of history, but also reflects successive government's failure to promote and take full advantage of the scheme.

Farming and fisheries have, in different EU countries, far more political clout - far more voters who live in communities reliant on these industries or who work directly in them. Our farmers and fishers - vital industries to our future food security - are able to rely on that, to benefit from that, now.

They're better off in the EU, as we're better off with stronger policies for sustainable agriculture and fisheries to secure our future food supply that come from being part of the EU where these
industries are a central part of political concerns.

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