MEMBERSHIP of the European Union will be critical to agriculture’s attitude to the independence referendum, so it was no surprise yesterday when both the pro-independence Scottish Government and the Rural Better Together organisation focused on that relationship to press their case at the Royal Highland Show yesterday.
Speaking to an invited audience, cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead stressed that in informal meetings with EU member states, all had said they would welcome “Scotland at the top table”.
He also quoted a former BBC correspondent, Angus Roxburgh. who had stated “Scotland’s accession [as a member state] would be the smoothest and quickest in EU history”.
Lochhead claimed that between the referendum vote and a potential “Independence Day “in 2016, Scotland would be negotiating independence “whilst part of the UK and within Europe”.
However George Lyon MEP, who chairs the Rural Better Together group campaigning to retain Scotland within the UK, dismissed that notion, saying that while he was sure Scotland could become a member of the EU, it would have to negotiate conditions of entry.
Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling, who was partnering Lyon at the Rural Better Together meeting, said EU member states such as Spain, who fear the loss of some of their own regions such as Catalonia, would oppose easy entry of Scotland into Europe.
The critical point for farmers centres on the single farm payment, currently administered through the EU common agricultural policy (CAP). Any disruption to this £500 million agricultural subsidy pipeline would cause a severe hiccup in the financial health of Scottish agriculture.
Lyon revealed that he was getting a very strong and positive response to his call for those concerned about independence to sign up for the Better Together campaign.
“Hundreds of people have signed up to join our campaign and farmers were keen to come and find out more,” he said.
“What we are finding is that people have real questions, particularly on EU support. The truth is that we simply do not know what independence would mean for single farm payments and other support that is so important to farm businesses.”
Darling also countered another claim by Lochhead, who had pointed to the role countries such as Ireland and Denmark played in the running of Europe.
“The reality is that it is big countries such as the UK who run Europe. If small countries want any action they have to combine with others,” he said.
Lochhead described the proposed UK referendum in 2017 on future membership of the EU, put forward by the Conservative party in order to quell the recent surge in support for Ukip, as a bigger threat to Scotland’s food and drinks industry.
If the UK left Europe, Lochhead said, it would threaten Scotland’s food and drinks industry’s access to 500 million consumers in Europe.
In that same scenario of UK leaving Europe, he said that Scottish farmers would see EU funding dry up overnight and it would not be replaced by UK funding as both Conservative and Labour parties south of the Border wanted to end direct support to farmers.
Lochhead repeatedly stressed the “disadvantages” experienced by Scottish farmers as a result of the UK negotiating on the CAP.
But Lyon, who sits on the EU Parliament’s agricultural committee, responded by saying that such criticism ignored the reality of a working government as opposed to the luxury of opposition.
The UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, making his first visit to the show, said any break-up of the Union would, from an agriculture point of view, be a very sad move because “we work together very well”.