Almost 100 representatives from rural businesses across the south west took part in a lively debate on the EU referendum last week resulting in many undecided voters being persuaded by the arguments of the ‘leave’ camp.
The debate, which was hosted by audit, tax and consulting firm RSM at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, pitted two former Defra ministers against each other to argue the case for the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps. In the chair was Harry Cotterell, ex-President of the CLA.
Owen Paterson MP, former Secretary of State at Defra, put forward the case for the ‘leave’ side, arguing that the money saved from the UK’s contribution to the EU budget would free up funds for the UK to invest in the rural economy. He also talked up the export opportunities for UK food producers, and the possibility for the UK to negotiate attractive trade deals without being hampered by EU membership.
For the ‘remain’ side, Sir Jim Paice, former Minister of State at Defra, argued that the rural sector in the UK receives its current level of support precisely because of the strength of rural communities in the rest of the EU, and warned that other sectors such as construction and finance would get more attention in the event of Brexit. He also flagged the difficulties involved in negotiating trade deals, warning that investment in negotiating access for British products would focus primarily on the most profitable sectors of the economy.
The speakers also locked horns on other issues such as rural tourism, GM food and immigration.
In a poll conducted among participants prior to the debate, 45 per cent said they were in favour of remaining in the EU, 26 per cent wanted to leave while 29 per cent were undecided. However, the exit poll showed 41 per cent for the ‘remain’ camp, 50 per cent in favour of leaving, and nine per cent undecided, indicating a significant swing from ‘undecided’ to ‘leave’.
Sharon Omer-Kaye, the office managing partner at RSM in Swindon said: “I’d like to thank our speakers who spoke passionately in support of their respective positions and the chair who ably steered the discussion to allow the key issues to be debated. The EU referendum poses particular questions for the rural business community and this event provided food for thought for all the attendees ahead of the crucial vote on 23 June.”
Pictured above from left to right: Harry Cotterell, Owen Paterson MP, Sir Jim Paice and Sharon Omer-Kaye