The gloves are off and the date has been set. On 23rd June we will decide whether we stay in the EU or not. Both sides are looking to discredit the other and we now quit the phoney war and move to an intensive debate over the next three and a half months about what it will really mean.
I feel sure that David Cameron wishes he had never been forced into the manifesto pledge to offer a referendum , but win or lose there is no going back now. The campaign to stay in is, not surprisingly, resisting calls for Government to map out what a vote to go might actually look like. David Eustice, the Farm Minister, has already outlined his vision for UK agriculture outside the EU. He claims that it will be built on a £2 billion support policy with simplified support and streamlined cross-compliance. However DEFRA's own statistics indicate that we currently spend about 50% more at £3 billion on direct and indirect farm support. The net cost of being a member of the EU is about £10 million, which sounds enormous but is only about 0.15% of our GDP.
On the other side of the debate, Liz Truss, the DEFRA Secretary, claims that to leave the EU would be a "leap in the dark" for farmers and threatens 60% of our worldwide farming experts which go to the EU. She is in favour of continued reform from within. Overall we have a massive trading deficit with the rest of the EU and they send much more to us than we do to them.
Last week I was in Dublin holding meetings with representative so the Irish Chartered Surveyors Institution and members of the Irish farming press. It was clear to me that they are terrified of the prospect of the UK leaving the EU. Ireland forms the only land border with the EU, currently completely open. The Republic exports a massive amount of beef and other farm products to the UK and we are their biggest trading partner. Whilst the UK is only about 60% self-sufficient in food, Eire produces about five times more beef than it can consume at home.
The decision we make in June will impact no only on ourselves, but also on our trading partners, our allies and our detractors. I would not presume to suggest the correct course to follow, but I would say this: listen carefully to the debate, sort the truth from the sound bites and make your own balanced decision based on the facts and not on knee-jerk reactions.