Impact of the EU referendum on UK’s countryside

After the UK voted to leave the EU last week, we look at what impact the EU currently has on farming, wildlife, jobs and other elements of the British countryside – and what potential effects the decision will have on rural life

Aerial view of fields in rural countryside

How does the EU influence the countryside at the moment?

WILDLIFE

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UK conservation has been heavily influenced by Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, which protect more than 1,000 animal and plant species and more than 200 habitat types. The directive can classify a wildlife site such as a mountain or an estuary as a Special Protection Area, or a Special Area of Conservation, giving them protection that can be as great or greater than that of a national park.

COMMON FISHERIES POLICY (CFP)

The CFP outlines quotas for the fishing industry across the Europe. It has introduced a discard ban, which stops the wasteful practice of throwing fish back into the sea. It has been criticised in the past for setting unsustainable quotas that ignored scientific evidence on fish stock levels.

COMMON AGRICULTURAL POLICY (CAP)

CAP dominates the way the UK and its European neighbours produce food and UK farmers receive about £3 billion every year in EU support payments via CAP. CAP also funds rural development, paying farmers to plant hedgerows and help them diversify, such as converting a barn into a bed and breakfast. In England, 58,000 agri-environment schemes cover more than 72% of farmland, according to Natural England. CAP payments make up 30-40% of incomes for upland livestock farms.

EUROPEAN REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT FUND (ERDF) and EUROPEAN SOCIAL FUND (ESF)

These funds support areas that are naturally disadvantaged from a geographical viewpoint – remote, mountainous or sparsely populated – such as rural counties of England, the Highlands of Scotland, rural Wales and Northern Ireland. Between 2014-2020, the ESF and ERDF were set to invest around €11.8 billion across the UK. The UK has also benefited from LEADER funding for small rural areas and Objective One funds, which also support the poorest parts of Europe. Objective One has been cited as a key factor in the transformation of the Welsh economic landscape.

MIGRATION

Free movement of people is one of the underlying principles of the EU. The farming industry has repeatedly argued it could not gather crops or sell them at competitive prices without migrant labour.

PESTICIDES

These are regulated by the EU’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides directive and are considered to have introduced more stringent criteria for approval and changed the mindset of countries across Europe.

WATER QUALITY

The European Union’s Water Framework Directive has been cited by supporters as driving the restoration of the ecological quality of rivers and lakes. A similar influence has been claimed for the Nitrates Directive, which prevents nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters. 

SEA WATER

The EU’s Bathing Waters Directive forced British water companies to clean up sewage they pumped into the sea; it was boosted by the shellfish directive which also laid down microbial standards. Our nation’s bathing waters have continually improved since 1990, when just 27% met strict water quality standards. In 2015, a total of 97% of England’s bathing waters passed the minimum tougher standard and, in total, 63.6% of bathing waters meet the new Excellent standard.

AIR QUALITY

Air pollution remains the number one environmental cause of death in the EU (including Britain), leading to about 400,000 premature deaths each year. Air pollution also harm ecosystems exposed to excess nitrogen deposition and ozone concentrations, causing reduced biodiversity, crop yields and other material damage. As a result, air pollution has been one of the EU’s main environmental concerns. Its Air Quality Directive set objectives in a effort to reduce emissions of air pollutants – carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, lead, fine particle pollution, NO2, benzene, and several other pollutants that are harmful for human health. Steep reductions in sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions have helped ensure that the most serious urban smog and acid rain episodes no longer occur at the rate and intensities seen in the past, but air pollution remains a large problem to tackle.

What is Brexit likely to mean for the countryside?

What the Government says:

George Eustice, Farming Minister (who voted for Brexit), told Farmers’ Guardian that farmers had nothing to fear from Brexit and that he was confident that a Free Trade Agreement with Europe would be established. On the issue of migration, he said the FTA would provide for a control permanent migration but a ‘liberal approach’ for seasonal and short-term labour.

Eustice said the UK would negotiate on food safety requirements, including maximum pesticide residue limits on food and animal welfare standards. He added that the Leave campaign had pledged to maintain current CAP spending up to 2020, even if the UK leaves the EU before then and has to fund it from the UK exchequer.

Elizabeth Truss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food And Rural Affairs, had backed Remain and signed a cross-party statement ahead of the referendum arguing that EU action was “helping to improve air quality, brings vital protections for Britain’s nature and wildlife, and provides investment in renewable energy to bring down emissions”.

NFU

The NFU recommended its members vote for Remain and based its stance primarily on a report that concluded that two plausible post-Brexit outcomes would mean higher food prices, but a third option of total trade liberalisation would lead to big price cuts and lower wages. However, polling close to the referendum for Farmers Weekly found that 58 percent of all farmers and 62 percent of young farmers intended to vote for Brexit.

“A lot of prominent politicians have made some big promises about maintaining the same level of support – even more support – and promises they would deregulate,” said NFU president Meurig Raymond. “We’ll have to hold these people to account in the months ahead.”

“For farmers, this means we will have to abide by CAP rules until they are re-designed,” said a spokesman for the NFU’s Brussels office. “It is likely that our access to the European market will depend upon complying with a significant proportion of European legislation.”

THE WILDLIFE TRUSTS

“Throughout the Referendum campaign, those who promoted leaving the EU said that funding will not be reduced for wildlife-friendly farming and that wildlife protection will be strengthened in an independent country,” said a spokesperson. “It is now time for all those involved in the past few months’ debates to honour their commitments and to build a better future for our wildlife.

“The EU has left a legacy of strong legislation and invested in many practical projects. Together, these have reduced the rate of wildlife losses and begun to reverse the fortunes of some of our wildlife. Obviously we don’t want these funding streams to disappear. If farmers can’t secure this funding in the future this would dramatically alter our countryside for the worse from a wildlife perspective. If we as The Wildlife Trusts lost these funds it would reduce our ability to achieve our charitable purposes.”

The Trust recently secured £1.3m of EU LIFE funding to promote the conservation of Red Squirrels and the spokesman added that “If the UK leaves the EU we could no longer apply for LIFE funding and it is unclear whether the UK government would sustain agri-environment payments to farmers.”

CLA

“This is a historic decision and we are entering an unprecedented period for our country and economy,” said CLA president Ross Murray. “This will bring challenges but also significant opportunities. Millions of people have voted for a new and different future for the UK. They have seen the opportunity to exploit new global markets, to reduce the red tape that stifles their ability to run their farm or business and to have a greater say in decisions that affect them and their rural communities.

“There are some urgent decisions for ministers to make. These decisions are necessary to secure the immediate future of the rural economy. We need an early guarantee that, whatever happens with regard to the negotiations on the UK’s exit, the support that is currently provided to UK farmers and the wider economy through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will continue unbroken and unchanged until at least the end of December 2020. 

“As negotiations begin on trade relationships to succeed our position as a full member of the European Union, the ambition must be a barrier and tariff-free relationship. Whatever happens, the UK Government must not allow a poor trade dynamic that leaves UK agriculture at a disadvantage.” 

RSPB

“Now the UK has decided to leave the EU, the RSPB believes the UK must continue to act internationally, and look to forge comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment,” said Dr Mike Clarke, chief executive of the RSPB. “It is essential that we do not lose the current, hard-won level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.”

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF FISHERMEN’S ORGANISATIONS

“Promises have been made and expectations raised during the referendum campaign and it is now time to examine if and how they can be delivered,” said the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.

“It is not difficult to understand the strong anti-EU sentiments within the UK fishing industry. The European Commission has too often behaved with arrogance, and the EU Parliament with ignorance, to escape their share of the blame.”

However, the NFFO cautioned that Brexit will not automatically bring benefits to the fishing industry as fishing fleets will still be bound by international agreements on fish stocks.

“Unfortunately, perhaps, the UK’s geopolitical position means that it is not politically or legally possible just to ringfence most of our fish resources, in the way that Iceland can. The reality is that most of our stocks are shared with other countries to some degree or other. We can certainly seek to renegotiate quota shares, as well as access arrangements, but it is realistic to expect that there will be a price. Who will pay that price is a critical question.

“Will there be new access arrangements in UK waters? Will all foreign vessels be excluded from UK waters? If not, what conditions will apply if they are allowed in?

“What reciprocal access arrangements will there be for our vessels to fish in the waters of other member states? What conditions will apply?”

Ben Briggs, editor, Farmers Guardian

“UK farmers now stand in a state of huge uncertainty, as does much of the rest of the country, but the stakes for agriculture are extremely high. CAP payments are now in jeopardy as we face leaving Europe and there are no cast-iron guarantees from Westminster they would be matched under a British farm policy.

“Some environmental organisations have also expressed concern that the strong environmental agenda promoted by Europe through support payments linked to environmental schemes will be lost. But you could be sure any policy would place an environmental agenda at its core. Farmers, contrary to some suggestions, love seeing a range of wildlife on their farms.

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“There are also big issues around trade, and the fear that existing access to the EU bloc of 500 million consumers will become tougher following Brexit. This is all the more pertinent when you consider 40 percent of British lamb goes overseas. In the short term this may be aided by a weakening of the pound which aids exports, but longer term uncertainty remains.”