Private Fraser in Dad’s Army, John Laurie, turned the phrase ‘we’re doomed’ into an art form – but it’s not one about Brexit you would expect in a newspaper that more than most encouraged a leave vote and Boris Johnson’s drive to become Prime Minister.
But, in a no holds barred editorial, The Telegraph [Torygraph?] recently deemed Brexit doomed. It said the process was ‘probably unsalvageable’, claiming nothing has been achieved and that there was no plan to release its potential.
It went on to claim that Brexit would only now fester, cause further problems in Northern Ireland and continue to strangle small businesses in red tape. It used new terms such as ‘Bregret and Regrexit’ to underline that even those enthusiastic about Brexit are now having second thoughts.
There is a lot of common sense in this and polling experts say that if there were a vote now on EU membership, it would not be lost. However, that is not going to happen. The decision has been taken, ties have been cut and there will be no going back for at least a generation or two.
Driving this scepticism, even from the political right, is the failure of Brexit to be any different to what went before. This is especially true in agriculture, where we remain committed to the European rather than a global model and where we have failed to exploit the potential to have a successful, locally sourced and driven food supply model.
Further evidence emerged this week that the government will not be able to deliver on its goal of scrapping all carry-over EU legislation, not that there is any evidence it is ready to be radical beyond the policy edges. It has now accepted the need for compromise to head off the problems around the Northern Ireland protocol.
While it will not admit it got things wrong from the outset, it may quietly ease back on opposition to having links to the EU single market. It may even eventually join the European Economic Area with other countries outside the EU that have sound trading relationships with it.
This would be the final nail in the Johnson ‘sovereignty over market access’ policy and even if it is resisted by the government, it is a road a future Labour government that has ruled out rejoining the EU may go down.
One thing with being out of the EU is that its statistics seem less relevant. In agriculture, that is unfortunate, because the EU has the scale and the global presence to make its figures on prices and production important.
It, however, remains a reflection of UK trends, not least because we have the same enterprises and still follow the same policies. The latest annual figures on agriculture from the EU confirm what we already know – that prices and costs have been increasing.
However, what they also confirm is that even though food price rises are hurting consumers and the economy they have not compensated farmers for the squeeze from rising input costs. Across all enterprises the increase in farm-gate prices from 2021 to 2022 was 24% – massive by any standards and a reflection of the turmoil on global markets.
This varied between enterprises, with the increase greatest, not surprisingly, for cereals which were up by 45%. This was followed by eggs at 43% and dairy at 31%. The only commodity where prices fell was for fruit, but in other sectors the increases were more modest and far from the scale farmers needed.
The reasons for the increases were easy to explain – the global impact of the war in Ukraine, the impact of drought on yields across Europe last summer and the relentless pressure on input costs from energy costs. The bottom line in a complex equation is that a ‘shopping basket’ of inputs studied on an annual basis by Eurostat rose by an average 30%.
This meant the old Mr Micawber quotation about income and expenditure holds true. Average income increase 24%, average cost increase 30% – result: Misery for farm businesses.
The biggest input costs rises were for fertiliser – up 87% and fuel, which was up by 59%. And these are figures worth remembering when people suggest farmers must be laughing all the way to the bank, given the scale of price rises on supermarket shelves.