Stay or go? Industry figures have their say on EU referendum
Voters will go to the polls in June to have their say on whether the UK should be in or out of the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron’s marathon negotiations in Brussels resulted in a deal which grants Britain, in his words, a “special status” within the EU. That paves the way for the long-anticipated referendum and as a result of the negotiations coming to a conclusion the date for the ballot has been confirmed as 23rd June. Over the coming months the public will be exposed to extensive campaigns from both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps. Today The Shetland Times sought the views of some of those involved with local industries.
The Prime Minister’s intense and protracted negotiations in search of EU reforms were nothing but “smoke and mirrors”, a leading crofter has warned.
Norman Leask, a West Side crofter and former chairman of the Scottish Crofting Federation, says there is nothing in David Cameron’s renegotiated deal with Europe to offer hope for producers. And he said the spectre of auditors who had the power to take back EU funding from crofters still loomed large in most folk’s concerns.
“The negotiations that took place were all smoke and mirrors to help convince folk in England that has absolutely nothing to do with practical farming, crofting, fishing, or any other kind of business, other than the business of one square mile in London,” he said.
Crofting has been in the European limelight, of late, in particular with wide-ranging CAP reform, and the well-documented difficulties behind the distribution of payments.
A proliferation of bureaucracy may also prove to be a bugbear for farmers and crofters – although that may be seen as nothing new among professionals often more akin to tilling the acres of parkland wading instead through acres of paperwork.
The National Farmers Union is, ostensibly, pro-Europe, although local NFU chief Jim Nicolson says individual members will have their own views.
But Mr Leask said elements of European regulation made no sense whatsoever – and added Mr Cameron had done nothing to change that.
Mr Leask said: “It seems a strange system to give somebody money and then get half of it back.
“And that is to do with as they tell you how it is to be done with. If it’s not used in that way, the court auditors can come in and withdraw that money.”
He described the European court of auditors – the guardians of EU finance – as “the big bugbear” in the agricultural sector.
“The British government, the Scottish government, and actually every government in Europe is scared of the court of auditors.
“They can go into the Scottish government, have a look at what schemes they have set up, and they can do spot checks on any producer.”
He described a convoluted chain that saw policy moving through Holyrood, then Defra, before having to jump through a similar series of hoops in Brussels.
“But the ones that hold all power is the court auditors, and the whole thing doesn’t make sense”
Mr Leask described Mr Cameron’s negotiations as something which made him “livid mad”.
Mr Nicolson said: “Basically, the NFU nationally have policy agreed to support remaining in Europe. But not every farmer and crofter agrees with that.
Along with the payments there is a lot of bureaucracy. These are issues that, I’m quite sure, a lot of crofters and farmers would be glad to see the back of. JIM NICOLSON
“The funding that comes from Europe for agriculture is quite significant. The one thing to remember about that funding is it never was and is not intended to make crofters and farmers wealthy.
“The main aim of it right from the beginning is to try to ensure cheaper food available for people across all the countries.
“Obviously, basic payment scheme has been a major issue and people are concerned that they are not getting the payments.
“But on the other side of the issue, along with the payments there is a lot of bureaucracy. These are issues that, I’m quite sure, a lot of crofters and farmers would be glad to see the back of.”
Scottish election Tory candidate, Cameron Smith, said he had visited crofters and agricultural businesses prior to the European settlement.
He said he had heard “quite a range of views”, although most of them related to the debacle
surrounding delayed CAP payments.
Spokesmen for one of the sectors that has been most critical of the EU, the fishing industry, are remaining non-committal about how their members should vote in the forthcoming EU referendum.
Although it is widely accepted that most fishermen would probably vote to leave the EU and its “hated” Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) there are pros and cons to consider before making a decision, according to industry leaders.
Most crucially, fishermen’s organisations must be placed to make the best deals for the industry, irrespective of the outcome of the 23rd June referendum. And that means taking a non-partisan approach to one of the most crucial political decisions facing Britain since joining the Common Market in 1973.
While most in the industry would see ditching the CFP as a huge relief, there is the potential loss of export markets – with much Shetland caught fish going to the EU – to consider. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that British and Scottish politicians will be any more prepared to fight the industry’s corner in an independent Britain than they have been with Britain as a member state. The fishing industry could find itself a sacrificial trading chip when the inevitable horse trading begins as a new settlement is reached with Britain’s EU neighbours.
According to Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins, the SFA’s job is to “make the best of any result in any election – it is not our job to tell other people how to vote”.
He added: “Fishermen for the most would be for pulling out, that’s no secret, but we have to be prepared to work with the result we get. There are also genuine differences of opinion within the industry.”
Mr Collins said that on one hand there was the “CFP that everyone hates” and which in many respects had been a failure whether viewed from a political or objective point of view. There was also the mackerel deal handed down from Europe, which had been universally condemned. It had to be considered though that both the UK and Scottish governments had been perfectly happy to sign up to both of these EU deals and as such, that left the question of whether fishermen could have any more faith in their national governments than in Brussels.
Mr Collins said that all would be to play for should Britain pull out of the EU. He hoped that such a decision would not have an adverse effect on UK export markets, but to predict such was pure conjecture.
“Even if we were to end up on the right side, we would be compromising ourselves somewhere if we were to be a partisan body. It is the same as in a general election, we want to work with the government no matter who rules.”
SFA pelagic chairman Davy Hutchison said that he had still to make up his mind how to vote but there was no doubt where fishermen’s sympathies lay.
“From what I am seeing and hearing there seem to be very few fishermen in favour of biding in,” he said.
The pelagic sector would nonetheless be following the SFA line and leaving what was a very complex decision up to the individual. Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation chairman Ian Walterson, who was also a successful whitefish skipper, said that he did not think that EU membership had done the UK fishing industry any good.
European money on the other hand had paid for things like the “new” fish market in Scalloway, pier developments and roads infrastructure.
“Any benefit of that is far outweighed by being disadvantaged by excess legislation, licensing and quota management; all of that has become almost unworkable,” Mr Walterson added.
“The increased bureaucracy coming out of Brussels over the years has been a major burden on the industry there’s no doubt about that, and a hell of a lot of fishermen would agree,” said Mr Walterson, expressing his personal view.
According to Mr Walterson most of the shellfish caught in Shetland gets sold to the continent, forming a strong economic bond between the isles and Europe.
If trade barriers were erected, they might overshadow exchange rates as the primary factor affecting exports.
“If we have a good product and people from other countries wants to buy it, that will happen whether we are in or out of EU – at least I would hope that would be the case,” he added.
One thing that both camps in the EU referendum debate have been able to agree on is that the outcome of the June vote will have a significant effect on British businesses and the economy.
The ‘out’ campaign claims that British businesses will benefit from the elimination of EU regulations and red tape which hinder trade. Furthermore, the camp believes that without the shackles of EU law Britain would be free to negotiate better trade deals with countries such as India and China.
On the other side of the debate in the ‘in’ camp argues that Britain benefits enormously from the union because British businesses avoid exporter tax within the EU. This is significant because almost 50 per cent of UK trade is with countries within the European Union.
The beneficial aspects of remaining in or opting out of the EU ensure that business owners and managers across the country have a strong opinion on the issue of EU.
Indeed many businesses are already suffering negative consequences from the upcoming referendum. This is due to uncertainty among business owners, investors, customers, employees and suppliers, who are finding it difficult to confidently plan for the future.
Owner of Shetland Broadband, Ian Brown, said that he felt David Cameron’s attempt to secure a better deal for the UK within the EU had been “a piece of nonsense” and had not resulted in any “significant changes”.
He added: “People that were for the union [before negotiations] are still for it, and those that were against it are still against it. It has
“It’s like saying has Tesco improved because they changed which brand of milk they sell?”
Despite his misgivings about Mr Cameron’s negotiations Mr Brown ultimately believes that business interests would be best served by staying in the union. “For all its faults I think we would be a lot worse off out than in.”
Managing director of Ocean Kinetics, John Henderson, agreed with that sentiment. He said: “I think we’re pretty good where we are.” The firm does business with customers in countries around the world and to Mr Henderson’s mind trading between EU countries is far simpler than it is with those countries outside of the EU.
He added: “I think any changes will have a detrimental effect and I don’t see any good reason why we should leave.”
The energy sector in general did not wish to comment on whether it would fare better in or out of Europe.
No-one at Viking Energy was willing to express an opinion on the referendum and oil giant Total, which has headquarters in France, was quick to stress its neutrality.
Oil & Gas UK adopted a similar stance, although business development director, Stephen Marcos Jones, said: “Oil & Gas UK is a trade association and an apolitical organisation with a broad member base. Members will undoubtedly have their own views on the topic. It is important, however, that Oil & Gas UK maintains its neutrality – it is for our members to speak up if they have a particular view.”
If we’re in or out of Europe it won’t matter, the [English] Channel will be wider so Europe would be further away. ANGUS WARD
Locally, director of Shetland Aerogenerators’ Burradale windfarm, Angus Ward, said: “I’m not sure if being in or out is going to affect the government’s stated intentions.” He said that the Climate Change Act of 2008 had been upheld by successive governments, and he thought it was “safe to say” that no government was going to repeal it, whether in or out of Europe.
Mr Ward added that there had been a meeting of world leaders in Paris in December, COP 21, in which countries including the UK pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which was the basis of his business. He said that if emissions were not reduced, there could be a “potentially massive” impact on future generations – in 100 years the sea level was predicted to be one and a half metres higher, and at that rate in 300 years it would have risen by five metres.
He said: “If we’re in or out of Europe it won’t matter, the [English] Channel will be wider so Europe would be further away.”
Another windfarm is planned by Energy Isles for the North Isles.
Crofter Derek Jamieson of Unst, who is involved in the project, said he did not know much about the European policy on renewables at this stage. He said: “There’s a lot of uncertainty about it.”
He added that it was vital to keep to the European target of 20 per cent of energy to come from renewables by 2020: “It’s important to keep going, hopefully the UK is on track.”