Is a full referendum on the European Union on the cards? I don’t believe the Tories can win a majority in 2015 but I am concerned that Labour might ultimately feel under pressure to hold one too. We’ve been full members of the European Union for my entire life and then a few years more. I’ve never known anything else. When I got to uni, EU law was a compulsory subject so at a minimum, I can say I understand the purposes and structure of the EU. I don’t particularly support a referendum because I worry we’ll (or more to the point, the media will) lose sight of a lot of the issues. The media would have us believe that the EU is all about handouts for (usually Eastern European) migrant workers. The Government would have us believe the Social Chapter is our enemy, with employment rights which damage the UK’s competitiveness. I’d like to change the narrative and look at something we take for granted. It seems mundane. It’s so very day to day.
I believe that an important element in the debate over Europe is the same issue which was a primary concern back in the 1970’s. The free movement of goods. The common market. Goods move freely across borders without import or export duties being charged. If the UK exits, what incentive does the EU have not to start charging duties? Will we be punished for our arrogance? And what’s to stop our own government charging import duties, to be passed along the supply chain? We don’t know how good we’ve got it. Take food. Looking at the statistics, we’re able to be self-sufficient in cereals and nearly so in sheep products (yay, say I: I literally gag on lamb). However our self-sufficiency in other foods is poor 25% of our beef, 46% of our pork and a whopping 95% of poultry comes from other EU countries. Self sufficiency in fruit & veg isn’t recorded as a percentage in the report I read but if I tell you that we’re the tenth largest producer of fruit & veg, remind you how many things simply won’t grow in our climate and point out that we’re vastly outstripped by the biggest producers, you’ll get the idea. And that’s in a good year. When crops are devastated by adverse weather conditions or meat is hit by a crisis like foot & mouth, our self sufficiency takes a knock. On the upside, we supply a lot of milk to the EU but I wonder how far they could absorb this internally, whereas we would struggle to increase production in other areas.
When it comes to the food chain, we play an important part in production but, again, we play that part within a common market. Would the EU consider moving production to other countries whose economies would benefit from a new industry, strengthening the whole EU and the Euro? The EU wants to be self-sufficient in the basics and then negotiates from a position of strength for items we can’t grow such as tea and coffee. The two biggest suppliers to the EU from outside it are Brazil and Argentina (good thing we haven’t been sabre rattling at Argentina again…oh). Would we really still be able to play with the rest of the EU if we voted to leave? Are we really in a position to bargain with producers alone? Will the EU keep us on the inside of the common market without full membership? We can expect the answers to become clearer over the next two years.
All we need to do is have a proper look around our supermarkets to see the extent of our EU imports: pork based meats like bacon, 95% of the poultry aisle, beer and wine, Spanish, Italian and Dutch fruit and veg, flowers, cheeses and, of course, chocolate that actually tastes of chocolate. We’re spoilt for choice. We may still be if we leave the EU but we can expect to pay more for the privilege. We’re currently in a situation where inflation has pressed prices up. It could get harder still.
We hear a lot about obesity and junk food but we also have greater access to healthy food than ever before. We hear a lot about the popularity of Indian and Chinese food but we have also seen an increase in the popularity of Mediterranean meals, which rely heavily on the kinds of foods we are unable to produce in the UK. Those changes have come about over the past 40 years and I believe they benefit us. This isn’t the only relevant issue in the debate by any means but it should certainly form part of it. Let’s not take the little things for granted.