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This morning I had the privilege of giving the keynote business lecture to this year’s Oxford Farming Conference on the theme of ‘embracing change’.
As well as reminding the audience of our £1 billion investment in British farming, I took the opportunity to set out our thinking on Brexit as the government begins the next critical phase of our negotiations to leave the EU.
A divided nation
It’s safe to say that our 4.5 million Co-op members will have been as divided on the question of Europe as the rest of the country was on 23 June 2016. They had concerns about national sovereignty; worries about immigration; and disillusionment with distant, out of touch authority.
For farmers, I know the margin for ‘Leave’ was higher overall than in the national population. That shows how significant our farming relationship with Europe has become over the last 40 years. In other words, farmers have been at the sharp end of all that has been both good and bad about the EU.
A ‘co-operative Brexit’
In my view, for Brexit to be good for Co-op members, good for farmers and good for Britain, it needs to be a ‘co-operative Brexit’ in the broadest sense of the word. It needs to be an exit that avoids a ‘cliff edge’ departure and allows us to continue to build higher standards in the food industry and remain an influential ‘player’ on the world stage.
Let me give you some reasons for why I think this way.
Climate change is one of those big issues that’s already changing the way we live and work and do business.
I welcome Michael Gove’s commitment to caring for the environment, which he made at the conference yesterday. It’s good news that future farm subsidy payments will be used to encourage farmers to protect our planet.
The Co-op has a long history of campaigning on environmental issues. What we’ve learnt is that there’s only so much we can do by ourselves without also working with local authorities, national government and our competitors. And as a nation you can’t tackle climate change alone.
The air and the sea don’t recognise lines on a map. So our future relationship with Europe has to recognise that a co-ordinated, co-operative approach to climate change is needed if we’re to create level playing fields for businesses all across the globe.
Another reason why we mustn’t close our doors on Europe is our access to labour markets.
At the Co-op we currently employ thousands of colleagues from the continent. They work in our stores, in our logistics depots and in our funeral homes. They are part of our working family. We want them to be here, and we need them to be here.
I know there are many agricultural businesses that feel the same way about the EU nationals that work for them. And for those businesses this issue is absolutely critical to their future.
Thankfully, as stage one of the negotiations came to some kind of resolution at the end of last year, it looks like this concern has been addressed. But, as the politicians keep reminding us, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. That means we don’t yet have a resolution that gives individuals, their families, and the businesses they work for, the security we all need.
The bottom-line is we don’t have the right labour in the right places that we need it in UK today. And we are an ageing population. We’ll continue to need both skilled and unskilled labour to come to this country to work in many sectors. Let’s not make that harder to achieve through an ‘un-co-operative Brexit.’
More Co-op farming
As the biggest Co-op in Britain we have a role in championing co-operative enterprise across all sectors of the UK economy. I agree with Co-ops UK, the body that promotes co-operation in Britain, which said before Christmas that the case for more co-operation in agriculture is stronger than ever.
I’d like to see practical steps included in the government’s new food and farming policy to encourage more Co-ops in farming because we know it creates greater resilience, fairness and sustainability especially in times of market volatility.
It’s clear that leaving the EU creates opportunities as well as risks. The exact nature of our departure will determine how the scales tip at the end of the day. My belief is that British farming should be known for quality and welfare. We should not make leaving the EU the starting gun for a race to the bottom.
We already have world leading standards of animal husbandry, traceability, and care for the environment. Let’s build on that reputation rather than lose it.
My final thought is that we live in a world where every major economic and social issue we face has a global dimension. Issues such as climate change; the movement of labour; the need for long-term resilience in our communities, all have an international dimension. One things for certain, you can’t embrace change like this by becoming ‘little Britain’.
The fact is, we will need to become global ‘co-operators’ in the broadest sense if we are to tackle the biggest threats and make the most of the greatest opportunities that are out there. All of this points to the need for a co-operative Brexit and I’m hopeful that’s where we will end up by the beginning of next year.
Co-op Group CEO