Unionist farmer ‘disappointed’ at stance of powerful British agri union over EU

George Osborne (pictured with Environment Minister Liz Truss) warned of a heavy price of an EU exit, as the NFU said it was pro-Europe
George Osborne (pictured with Environment Minister Liz Truss) warned of a heavy price of an EU exit, as the NFU said it was pro-Europe

A dairy farming unionist has declared himself “disappointed” after an enormous agricultural union gave its backing to the idea of the UK remaining in the EU.

DUP figure William Irwin said that he remains unconvinced of the merits of EU membership after the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) publicly announced its stance on Monday.

The NFU’s position closely mimics that taken by the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) in late February.

At that time, the UFU stated that it will not campaign either way or advise its members how to vote.

However, it added that “no compelling argument has been made that agriculture would be better off outside the EU”.

The NFU, which represents farmers across England and Wales, said it would not actively campaign or tell its 55,000 members how to vote.

But a resolution passed by its governing council said that “on the balance of existing evidence available to us at present, the interests of farmers are best served by our continuing membership of the European Union”.

The UFU, which has about 12,000 members, said its position has not changed as a result of its larger counterpart’s stance.

The DUP is strongly in favour of leaving the EU and Mr Irwin, who runs a farm with 300 cows alongside his son near Richhill, Co Armagh, said: “The difficulty you have for some people is a fear of change. There is a certain amount that’s unknown, and that I suppose makes some farmers fearful.”

However, he added: “I don’t think things could be any worse. I still think that Britain and Northern Ireland are much better out.

When it comes to the NFU’s stance, he said: “I’m disappointed. I do believe farmers will make their own minds up. I don’t think the union will be the deciding factor.

“I think farmers will look at how well they feel they’re doing in Europe. I believe that [with] the prices we’re seeing for produce at the moment, there’s no encouragement for farmers to stay in Europe.”

In addition on Monday, an analysis by the Treasury – launched by pro-EU chancellor George Osborne – determined that leaving the EU could mean £36bn less to spend on public services.

The chancellor warned that British families would pay a “heavy economic price” if the country votes to break from Brussels on June 23, with the UK left permanently poorer.

The 200-page analysis produced by officials in Mr Osborne’s department was mocked by Brexit campaigners and branded “dodgy”, but the Chancellor insisted it was “serious and sober”.

Mr Osborne said: “You can’t name a single ally of Britain, a single major trading partner of Britain, a single credible international financial organisation, which is saying it would be a good idea for Britain to leave the EU.”

In an apparent swipe at pro-Brexit London mayor Mr Johnson – who famously said that his policy on cake was “pro-having it and pro-eating it” – the Chancellor said: “What I don’t think you can claim is that somehow Britain can have its cake and eat it, that we would have all the benefits of EU membership without the costs and obligations. That is not credible.

“Indeed, the most prominent campaigners for us leaving the EU do admit there would be an economic shock and that jobs would be put at risk.”

Brexit-backing former chancellor Lord Lamont of Lerwick dismissed the report’s projections.

“They say economists put a decimal point in their forecasts to show that they have a sense of humour,” he said. “The Chancellor has endorsed a forecast which looks 14 years ahead and predicts a fall in GDP of less than 0.5 per cent a year - well within the margin of error. Few forecasts are right for 14 months, let alone 14 years. Such precision is spurious, and entirely unbelievable.”

Pro-Brexit minister Andrea Leadsom, who had served in the Treasury under Mr Osborne, claimed the document was “extraordinarily biased” because it failed to consider the impact of continued high migration.

“A much fairer way to present this argument would be to also look at the impact if we remain in on further migration, further pressure on public services, the impact on security and so on,” she said. “You have got to present a balanced view.”

The Energy Minister mocked the report’s long-term prediction, telling BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “It’s extraordinary to have such an accurate central figure and it implies a clarity of crystal-ball gazing that even I, as a fully paid up witch, couldn’t possibly presume.”

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign said the report’s figures were “deeply flawed”.