EU referendum: Is EU a ‘force for good’ or ‘stranglehold’?

At the moment EU standards recognise and protect the status of products including Arbroath smokies, as well as Stornoway black pudding and various cheeses. Picture: Donald MacLeod
At the moment EU standards recognise and protect the status of products including Arbroath smokies, as well as Stornoway black pudding and various cheeses. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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IN THE latest in our series featuring key voices discussing Scotland’s future, divided opinions were on the table during a food and drink sector debate, reports Natalie Walker

With three of the UK’s top five export markets in the EU, experts from the Scottish business world gathered in Edinburgh this week to debate how Brexit would impact on the food and drink industry.

There will still be Mercedes Benz in the streets of St Andrews and the Royal and Ancient will still have French wine and cheese on its menu

William Frame

From warnings that four in ten farmers would be left without a business to whisky bosses saying it would help open up a wide range of new markets opinion was divided.

All six delegates agreed Scotland was a “global leader” in both food and drink and had tremendous growth potential with markets in the US, China and India. But they disagreed on the benefits of staying in the EU, with some saying it hindered business growth and added unnecessary red tape.

Pro-EU farmer Pete Ritchie, founding director of Nourish Scotland which campaigns for a sustainable food system and owner of Whitmuir Organics, said many farms in Scotland would “go bust” without EU subsidy.

He said: “We would lose 40 per cent of farms within the next five years. Leaving the EU would be a disaster for Scottish farming. To those people who say ‘we’d be fine’ as support would come from elsewhere, like Defra [Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs] I disagree. They have no intention of supporting farmers. Governments are not going to direct money that way when we need to build hospitals.”

“The EU is a force for good, for the last 30 years it has helped the UK get its act together with regards to environmental issues, the state of our beaches, the cleanliness of water and so on.”

“Personally, we are a small farm and at the end of the queue. The EU has good trade negotiators, with them it’s a bigger market for us and people like us. We have more clout remaining in the EU with them. And let’s not forget there are 500 million customers in the EU and just 64 million in the UK alone.”

But Ross Thomson, Tory MSP for North East Scotland, said a major concern was the lack of accountability the EU had with decisions being made in Brussels. He believes Scottish ministers would be better suited to controlling issues such as fisheries and farming.

The politician said: “Scotland would have more powers if it came out of the EU so we could hold our MSPs to account over issues like where they spend their money.

“We are just one voice of 28. For some the EU is a stranglehold. If we elected those who represented us we could turf them out if we did not agree with them.”

He also pointed out that 79 per cent of trade is internal within the UK with just 10 per cent within the EU

Mr Thomson added: “We need to take power back need to get back at table and create our own deals.”

Property developer William Frame, co-owner of award-winning Cromar’s Restaurant in St Andrews, said it was time to leave:“Enough is enough of Brussels. We need to revamp as a proud island nation and trade with anyone. To those who say leaving would see us ‘wither on the vine’, I don’t think so, our creativity and dynamism will see to that,” he said.

“There will still be Mercedes Benz in the streets of St Andrews and the Royal and Ancient will still have French wine and cheese on its menu if we leave.

“There’s a whole world out there that we could trade freely with not just in Europe without tariffs and interventions and without EU rules and regulations. Politicians should stop interfering and let business people get on with it.”

Another of the three pro-Brexit campaigners at the debate was Malcolm Offord, Chairman of Badenoch & Co which invests in emerging Scottish manufacturing companies. He questioned whether membership of the EU had made some businesses “lazy” with many emerging markets in Asia in Latin America remaining untapped,

Mr Offord said: “Did the EU just make us a wee bit lazy? My organisation was set up for emerging markets, not just Europe. I don’t have faith in the EU in the next 20 years.”

Mr Offord, has also become Chairman of Three Stills which is building a new distillery which will be the first in the Scottish Borders since 1837, said products like Scotch whisky were so internationally recognised they would continue to sell whatever the outcome on 23 June.

Gordon Macintyre Kemp, Chief Executive of Business for Scotland, said Brexit would see businesses paying substantial tariffs to get access to the full European market, noting that “a 15 per cent rate had been mentioned”.

He said: “Standards put in place by the EU have been very good for Scotland. We can trade with Europe and the rest of the world with these standards in place.

Indeed, a recent report by trade credit insurer Euler Hermes predicted Britain would lose £30 billion in exports and more than 1,700 UK firms would go bust if its fails to secure a free trade agreement (FTA) with Europe in the event of Brexit, a report has found.

The study said a vote for Britain to leave the EU without an FTA would see gross domestic product (GDP) fall by minus 4.3 percentage points by 2019, dealing a major blow to businesses and UK exports.

It said a failure to secure an FTA after Brexit would also see export losses rocket to £30 billion by 2019 – a gap which would take ten years to fill.

Speaking as one of the three businessmen voting to remain was John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools and former Head of the UK office at the European Parliament in Edinburgh.

He echoed the benefits of having an easy to access European market and EU standards, including the recognition and protected status of quality products including Arbroath smokies, Stornoway black pudding and various Scottish cheeses.

Mr Edward said: “We sought protection for these and got it. We want to make the most of what this country has to offer and feel proud, we can do that in the EU. Some people think of what the EU does in terms of red tape, but in reality it is the stuff that consumers, voters, businesspeople and so on have asked for.

“There isn’t a room full of people in Brussels looking for something to do for the hell of it.”

He also said it was wrong for some people to suggest the UK was isolated within the EU, with many believing most other member countries did not agree with what it put forward.

He said: “The UK is the country that most EU countries vote with.”

Another major debating point was the freedom of movement. From 2004 the UK saw a huge surge in migration from Eastern Europe. Free movement of people is enshrined as a fundamental right in the EU treaties. It is one of the “four freedoms” of the single market – people, goods, services and capital. The European Commission, the EU’s executive, insists those freedoms are non-negotiable.

The debate heard hundreds of overseas workers were needed to fill temporary and low paid work in the food and drink sector including fruit picking and working in fish factories.

Farmer Mr Ritchie said: “There are more long-term workers from the EU than short-term in Scotland, therefore we need free movement of labour. This idea that there’s a rush of migrants into a country that doesn’t need them is not true. There are some pressures in some communities but in general these workers are needed in some places to pick berries and process fish.”

But Mr Offord said: “With the introduction of the minimum wage we are freezing out our own people. For, what is it £8 an hour, you can get a graduate from Romania who is well educated over a lower educated person from within this country.”

The final word of the debate went to Mr Ritchie who asked: “The situation with the EU not perfect but surely it’s not so bad that you’d throw it away altogether, is it?”

We will find out how many people agree with him soon enough.