With more than 290,000 people working in farming, and more than 70% of the UK’s land under agricultural use, farming has a huge impact, directly and indirectly, on all of us. With many farmers and related businesses operating on both sides of the Scottish border, there would inevitably be significant repercussions for many companies, if Scotland gained full independence.
Much has been made in the media in recent weeks of the distinction between a ‘soft Brexit’ and a ‘hard Brexit’, and that distinction could make a huge difference to Scotland. Under a soft Brexit deal, the UK would retain access to the single market, whereas under a hard Brexit, single market access would be restricted and trade between the UK and the EU would be subject to tariffs and import/export restrictions.
With Scottish exports to the UK totalling almost £50 billion in 2015, and exports to the EU adding a further £12.3 billion, the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will clearly have a significant impact on Scotland. If Scotland votes for independence, however, there is a real risk that it will have little to no influence in those negotiations.
Trade isn’t the only thorny issue when it comes to Scotland’s future after Brexit. It’s thought that around 181,000 EU citizens are currently living in Scotland, with many of them working in unskilled jobs, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Since immigration played such a big part in the Brexit referendum, it seems unlikely that the UK government will concede defeat on the issue of immigration controls during Brexit negotiations, which leaves a question mark over the heads of those EU nationals who are already living and working in the UK. If free movement is restricted in some way, it could mean that the agricultural sector finds it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies. An independent Scotland, on the other hand, could make it harder for Scots to work in the rest of the UK, and for non-Scottish citizens to cross the border to work.
Funding is also a factor for Scotland when it comes to the EU, as it receives a great deal in subsidies, particularly in the agricultural sector. With 85% of Scotland’s land designated as ‘Less Favoured Areas’, the country receives significant financial support for farming this land. If Scotland remains in the UK, these subsidies are likely to disappear after Brexit. Whilst the UK government may choose to use money previously spent on EU contributions to bring in farming subsidies of its own, this is by no means a certainty. The removal of EU farming subsidies could see a tenth of all UK farms fall into the red, so the issue is clearly a very important one.
Even the question of currency is up for discussion, should Scotland gain independence and stay a member of the EU. The drop in sterling’s value has already improved the fortunes of many UK businesses who export their goods, and Scottish farmers enjoyed a boost of £96 million in 2016, due to sterling’s decline. Should Scotland leave the UK and adopt the euro, however, things might not look so rosy, as Scottish exports to the UK may well then seem rather expensive.
Ultimately though, the shockwave that could hit Scottish farming in such a scenario would likely be very sizable, considering the vast amount of money in question. Both the UK and EU are so deeply intertwined within the makeup of Scotland’s farming that to lose just one will no doubt have long-lasting effects. Hopefully, politicians on all sides recognise just how significant such an issue is, and can find common ground to handle any issues that subsequently arise.
Justin Fox is an agricultural writer and history graduate from the University of Kent. He has previously written for FG Insight and Cornell University’s Alliance for Science.