An important meeting took place on Monday night (27th March) on the implications of Brexit for us in Orkney. The discussion chaired by BBC Radio Orkney’s Dave Gray was led by Professor Michael Keating of the Centre for Constitutional Change. Local speakers were Fiona Matheson representing the Orkney Fisheries Association and David Scarth chair of Orkney’s National Farmer’s Union.
The non political Centre for Constitutional Change based in Edinburgh University includes academics from the Universities of Aberdeen, Cardiff, Stirling, Strathclyde, the Queen Mary University of London and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Professor Keating is the Director and works with governments on the changing constitutional relationships affecting the UK.
It was extraordinary, to say the least, that such an important meeting with representatives of two crucial industries for the Orkney economy was not attended by any Orkney Islands’ councillors or any prospective councillors.
Professor Keating has been speaking in communities across Scotland to gauge the different concerns that are being raised locally. He explained that the single market is crucial in that it was a ‘deep form of free trade agreement’ because it was about more than trade. He expects the UK to eventually sign a free trade agreement of some sort with the EU but that it would only cover manufactured goods. It would not cover services, agriculture and fisheries. The latter two, of course, of vital importance to Orkney.
Professor Keating outlined 3 scenarios facing Scotland and the UK:
- the Norway option ( which would not cover agriculture and fisheries)
- the UK leaving the EU but Scotland staying in the single market ( which would not cover agriculture and fisheries)
- a second Independence Referendum with Scotland in the EU
He also pointed out that if no deal was negotiated within the 2 year time frame then the UK would be out of the EU with no trading agreements. With the UK currently having no negotiating position it was making the situation very difficult.
Fiona Matheson from Orkney Fisheries Association and representing the view of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation explained how the fishing industry had been sacrificed when the UK joined the EU. Fishing was not a priority for the UK and there was at that time no voice for the fishing industry in Scotland.
With the management and resource of fishing being controlled by Brussels, quotas and decommissioning had seen huge amounts of money spent on shrinking the industry. The SFF saw leaving the EU as a way of regaining control over the fishing grounds. She explained that the fish in Scotland’s waters were a more valuable resource than oil and lamented the normalisation of giving away the fishing grounds.
She stated that the picture looks rosy for the fishing industry and sees Orkney’s velvet crabs and shellfish still having a market in France after the UK leaves the EU. She went on to describe the huge employment potential there would be in a reinvigorated fishing industry although did concede that the processing side of the industry would be faced with difficulties due to its reliance on significant numbers of EU migrant workers
David Scarth, chair of the National Farmer’s Union in Orkney described the importance of farming to the islands and its long history of shaping the lands around us. He explained that not only was there a large workforce directly employed in farming but that there was a considerable network of supporting businesses.
He saw three threats to the vibrant agricultural sector in Orkney with the uncertainty over what will happen with:
- Common Agricultural Payments (CAP)
- Defra (Department for Food and Rural Affairs)
He explained that although the cattle and sheep sector relied heavily on support payments that for every £1 spent the UK got £7.40 back.
The opportunities he saw for farming were:
- new support mechanisms
- new policies formulated
and that instead of a top down approach a new look at farming should be inclusive of those who are actively engaged in the industry.
David Scarth was concerned about trade tariffs and extra costs involved in trading with the EU once the UK had exited and that perhaps we should be targeting high value products. Like Fiona Matheson he raised the problems caused by the loss of a large EU migrant workforce in the processing side of the industry.
Another farmer in the audience expressed the helplessness those in the industry felt with so little still known about what Brexit will mean and the uncertainty this creates. Professor Keating described how little politicians know about both farming and fishing and warned both industries about being marginalised in the negotiations. Fiona Matheson explained that the Orkney Fisheries Association was working with others in the industry to draft a series of plans which they would be able to activate within different scenarios. Farming, however, currently has no such future planning.
Why there was no one present at this forum from Orkney Islands Council at this time of huge uncertainty to farming and fishing is mystifying. Has OIC even considered plans on how to mitigate the impact to both these industries, the communities and the families that they support when the UK leaves the EU?
There is no way in the current economic climate that the UK will be able to support either farming or fishing with the required financial investment that will be needed with the changes that both industries will have to embrace. There will be an enormous funding gap and it would be disastrous for Orkney if our world famous farming industry was to drop through it. Inaction is not an option.
As David Scarth said:” Don’t let’s trade farming away when we leave the EU”
Reporter: Fiona Grahame