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Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

Europe: Should we stay or should we go?

If we stay there will be trouble, howl Eurosceptics agitated by the unfettered influx of migrants to the UK; but if we go it will be double, trumpet Europhiles who decry the potential loss of free trade agreements with our European neighbours.

But what would Brexit mean for food and on what side of the fence will the industry position itself?

These are the questions we got some way closer to answering during Monday’s annual City University Food Symposium, although frankly, the most significant conclusion to be drawn from the day was that, at this point, no one knows very much at all.

One thing we do know, as the FDF’s Ian Wright clearly articulated, is that food policy is at the heart of the UK’s membership of the EU and, as such, it should be a critical determinant of how people vote.

Yet the industry’s voice in the debate remains muted. Both the FDF and the NFU refused to commit to a firm position, despite conspicuously highlighting the benefits of staying in the EU whilst mostly glossing over the negatives. Eyebrows were raised further by the admission from both organisations that they had not discussed with the UK government contingencies for the food and farming sector in the event of Brexit, which either suggests a feeling of extreme confidence on the part of the UK government, a distinct lack of preparation or a reluctance to think the unthinkable.

With an In/Out referendum promised by the end of 2017, the subject is set to dominate the political narrative from now right up until voting day.

To date, food has been largely absent from that narrative despite it being at the heart of the key issues of contention. David Cameron is currently touring Europe demanding a curb to the right of migrants to claim benefits in the UK. Many on the right of the Conservative Party would have him go further still and fight for the right to restrict freedom of movement altogether. Yet the UK food industry is hugely reliant on migrant labour, a point made repeatedly and persuasively at the Symposium. Whether it’s labourers picking fruit on Kentish farms or staff working long, unsociable hours in Edinburgh’s restaurants, the UK food chain in its current guise would most likely grind to a shuddering halt in the absence of migrant labour.

Then there’s the thorny issue of farm subsidies paid under the CAP, which is estimated to account for around 40% of the EU’s annual budget. The CAP is far from perfect, but could UK producers really survive in a cutthroat market without single farm payments that in many cases are the only thing keeping them in business?

Less tangible, but just as important, is the cultural effect that being a member of the EU has had on our food. From supermarkets selling Polish delicacies to the proliferation of continental restaurants over recent decades our close relationship with Europe has left an indelible, and most would argue positive, mark on the UK’s food culture.

There is clearly frustration among certain stakeholders over elements of the UK’s relationship with Europe where food is concerned, particularly over issues such as labelling and a perceived excess of red tape. But many food businesses actually welcome the EU’s role as regulator on issues such as food standards and safety as it allows them to remove repeat costs when exporting to different countries. And, as a number of panelists argued on Monday, it’s surely better to be inside the tent setting the rules of the game rather than outside having to adhere to them but having no influence over their content?

So what’s the conclusion? Firstly, that food must at the very least be part of a debate that, if the early rhetoric is anything to go, threatens to be an emotional campaign that plays on the public’s sense of national identity rather than a hard-nosed assessment of the pros and cons of EU membership.

Secondly, that the food industry and other stakeholders need to step up and make their voices heard as part of the debate.

And a final thought, expressed forcefully at the Symposium by Eating Better’s Sue Dibb: if we think Brexit or otherwise is going to solve the problems associated with our current food system, we’re very much mistaken.

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