Hammering out new policies in the next two years to replace the 14 EU grant schemes which deliver £500 million a year to Scottish farmers will be “utterly impossible”, Ewing told the annual meeting in Glasgow of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW).
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“We will need transitional arrangements to largely continue the existing support schemes to give clarity and certainty to farmers and crofters,” said Ewing. “At present, they have no idea what’s going to happen post-Brexit. How can they plan ahead in the absence of assurances about future policy?”
He appealed to SAMW and other industry organisations to work with him in developing new policies and putting pressure on the UK government at the highest level to continue the existing EU schemes until a new UK agricultural policy is devised.
This would require to be financed by the UK government and he admitted that getting the Treasury to come up with the money would be difficult.
“The Treasury has no enthusiasm for continuing direct payments to farmers and they will be kicking and screaming to stop that happening, despite what was said by pro-Brexiteers in the run-up to the referendum,” said Ewing.
More than 85 per cent of land in Scotland is officially classified as less favoured and support accounts for a large proportion of farm income, more than 50 per cent in some cases.
“It will be fatal for the farming and meat industries in Scotland if support is withdrawn or the industry is left to depend on World Trade Organisation trading arrangements,” Ewing warned.
Countries such as Ireland, New Zealand and Norway were already planning ahead and the UK would stand still at its peril. Not only farmers and crofters would be affected but the meat trade would suffer and jobs would be lost if the downward trend in the Scottish beef herd and sheep flock was not reversed.
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New SAMW president Frank Clark, sales director with meat processors McIntosh Donald, Aberdeen, welcomed the cabinet secretary’s comments on the need for a transition period.
He said: “Whether the correct timescale is two years or as long as five years, the important point is that we must have a smooth transition into the post-Brexit structure. The risk is that if we don’t get such a period, the industry will be plunged into chaos while new procedures and regulations are put in place and we can’t afford that.”
Scottish meat wholesalers had worked hard over many years to establish trading relationships with customers in Europe and it was vital to secure a Brexit solution which kept those export routes open.
“That means securing terms as close to – if not exactly the same – as those which currently exist,” said Clark, who added it was crucial that agriculture didn’t get “traded away” to ensure the best deal for the banking and financial sectors.