Environment secretary George Eustice has stated that the country was staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit, and that 2021 will finally give him the chance to implement radical plans for British farmers.
“When we voted to leave the EU in 2016, I think we knew there would be complexities, but I don't think any of us expected it to take longer than the First World War to actually be able to finish it and get the job done,” says George Eustice, reflecting on December’s finale to the Brexit negotiations.
The deal struck on Christmas Eve between the EU and UK sounds as though it came as a significant relief to the secretary of state, who is himself a long-time Brexit supporter. He, more than most Cabinet ministers, would have been at the very sharp end of the fallout from trading on no-deal terms. There would, for example, have been an eye-watering 48% tariff on sheep meat exports, that could have crippled lamb farmers.
“In the end it was always going to require some kind of compromise.”
“I think it's the end of a very long saga,” he tells The House in his first interview of the year.
“It’s a relief that we've now got a partnership agreement in place and can move forward.”
The historic agreement on zero-tariffs and zero-quotas for goods has been described as a thin arrangement by critics. The fishing industry in particular is unhappy that the EU has access to UK waters for a number of years to come. Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said their industry had been “sacrificed for other national objectives”.
Eustice responds to this by saying: “In the end it was always going to require some kind of compromise.”
He says the government knew there would be a multi-annual agreement of possibly three to five years on fishing rights, though at the end of talks it turned into five and a half years.
“We didn't get as far as we would have liked on fishing in this first five years but we do retain that ability to make regulations in our waters and to change access agreements again after five years,” he said.
Under the post-Brexit deal struck between the two sides, 25% of the EU boats’ fishing rights in UK waters will be transferred between 2021 and 2026. At the end of the five-year period it is estimated that the UK will have access to an extra £145m of fishing quotas every year.
Describing the deal for UK fishermen, he said: “It’s a fair first start.”
Increasingly grave warnings from the Prime Minister, ministers and government officials that Britain was likely to leave without a deal with the EU because of weeks of stalemate over fishing and the level playing field were absolutely genuine, Eustice insists, and weren’t just part of the theatre of political negotiation.
It wasn’t until the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was superseded by President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, that there was any glimpse of an agreement at all, he explains.
“There was a very real prospect of a no deal exit. I was in many of the XS meetings, which is the Cabinet sub-committee that deals with EU exit strategy. And it's no exaggeration that really, for the last six months, we deemed it to be [a] sort of 50-50 chance that there would be an agreement because the negotiations were very hard work and the EU were quite intransigent, and frankly very unreasonable on many fronts. And so there were moments when we very much doubted it would be possible to get an agreement.”
This year the majority of farmers in England will see a 5% reduction in their income
Had Barnier been in charge of the final decision on whether it was possible to reach an agreement, he may have let the UK go on WTO terms, Eustice suggested.
“I think it was only really at the end when the Commission realised that it made no sense for there not to be a trade agreement with the EU, not least because they're actually quite dependent on the UK market for many of their sectors, and tariff-free access to the UK market really mattered to them.”
Eustice, 49, has been leading Defra for almost a year, and was appointed after Theresa Villiers was sacked from the post in Boris Johnson’s first major Cabinet reshuffle.
Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove have also had a shot at the job since 2015, in what has been an extremely high turnover department.
Eustice comes from a six-generation farming background, growing up and working on his family’s fruit farm in Cornwall. His political career included a spell as head of press for the Tory party during Michael Howard’s general election run, and a stint as David Cameron’s press secretary. He was elected MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall in 2010.
While the top job at Defra was a merry-go-round of senior Tory faces, Eustice was relied upon for continuity and, unusually in modern politics, served as a farming and fisheries minister in an almost unbroken five-year stint, dramatically quitting Theresa May’s government over plans to allow MPs to vote on extending Article 50. He wasn’t away for long though, re-hired as a minister in the summer of 2019 and promoted to secretary of state in February 2020.
Now in charge of the most radical overhaul of farming in five decades, Eustice will be overseeing the start of the transition from what he describes as the “basket case” EU Common Agricultural Policy and its Basic Payment Scheme to the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) by late 2024.
While farmers have been paid by land area, where large landowners have received the biggest subsidy cheques, post-Brexit the government wants to see sustainable, subsidy-free farming, that only rewards people financially for improving so-called ‘public goods’. This means reward for improving the environment, animal health and welfare, and reducing carbon emissions.
"When we design our future agriculture policy, we have to be designing it for the farmers of tomorrow"
This year the majority of farmers in England will see a 5% reduction in their income, and the direct payment method to be phased out entirely by 2028. When ELMs is introduced in its entirety by 2024, the Basic Payment incomes going to farmers should be down to around 50%.
Susan Twining from the Country Land and Business Association had initially described the timetable – and gap between the old and new systems – as providing a “valley of death” that could even put some people out of business.
The government did appear to listen and brought forward one of the three elements of ELMs – the Sustainable Farming Incentive, which is open to all farmers – to starts in 2022.
It seems inevitable that, with such radical change, even at the end of the seven-year transition period, some farmers may come out the other side worse off financially. “We will be reducing the Basic Payments but we are replacing it pound-for-pound with new schemes,” Eustice says, adding that the new opportunities will let farmers recoup money they are losing.
“They will also need to adjust their farming practices to qualify for it.”
Is there a risk only the most forward- thinking, adaptable and dynamic farmers will thrive? Eustice says: “I've always been clear that when we design our future agriculture policy, we have to be designing it for the farmers of tomorrow, not just those that are farming today.
“I think [it is] absolutely the case that there will be some farmers, particularly some older farmers, and there are lots of farmers, well into their 70s who are still going, [who may] decide that this is an appropriate time to retire.
“So we are looking also at exit schemes so that they can retire with dignity. And we're looking at giving them the lump sum payments to help support that choice, if it's the right choice for their business.”
There is no denying that part of this grand vision is to get younger people into farming and environmental management by moving them on to the land. A new generation of 30-something farmers – which Eustice describes as ‘“fresh blood” with new ideas and thinking – are an essential component of the post-Brexit era.
An army of agronomists will now be visiting individual farmers to develop their farm business to suit the requirements of ELMs. The idea is that these experts will help farmers identify which public goods they already have and what they might be able to provide on their land. An example of goods one could be paid for is grassland and soil management to large-scale forest and woodland creation.
Agronomists might come from Defra, but more likely they will be land agents who have been accredited to provide the service, or staff from existing countryside and wildlife organisations. They will look after approximately 50 to 100 farms each a year. Crucially, though, the agronomist service will be paid for by the farmer, a little detail that not many in the sector seem to be aware of.
Asked how much this assessment will cost, Eustice said: “We don't put a precise figure on that.” But he added it will be a “relatively modest cost”.
Pushed again, he explains: “[It’ll] probably not cost much more than they're already paying for their current land agent to fill out the forms for them. [It] will depend on the size of the farm. But at the moment it's not unusual for farm businesses to pay anything up to £5,000 a year for a land agent to help them complete their various forms.”
Covid delayed Eustice’s planned response to a major review into England’s national parks carried out by writer Julian Glover. A written ministerial statement is due soon and while he doesn’t promise to bring forward all of the review’s recommendations, which include a new National Landscapes Service to oversee the country’s national parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, and a new national park in the Chilterns, he said most of Glover’s suggestions are being considered seriously.
With Brexit meaning no real break over Christmas, except Christmas Day which he spent with his wife and young daughter, the new year looks as frantic for Eustice as 2020.
He says: “In this world nobody remains secretary of state forever, or as long as they would like to. I just think when you have the opportunity to serve in Cabinet and lead a department like Defra during a period of great change, you just have to throw yourself into it.”
About the author: Kate Proctor is a reporter for The House publication