Interview: Fergus Ewing on fishing, farming and food after Brexit

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 22 February 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the Rural Affairs and Connectivity Secretary on Brexit and beyond

Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing MSP - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Fergus Ewing is angry. Not fist-thumpingly, teeth-grindingly angry – that’s not Ewing’s style – but quietly seething at the latest snub by the UK Government.

Shortly before Holyrood caught up with the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity (the full title is important, as we will see later), his UK counterpart, Andrea Leadsom, abruptly cancelled a key Brexit meeting with the devolved administrations.

“Robert Burns had some advice to MPs,” said Ewing, clearly still digesting his Burns supper.

“In gathering votes ye werna slack, now stand as tightly on your tack. Don’t claw your lug, and fidge your back, and hum and haw, but stand up straight and gie your crack, before them a’.

“In other words, be straight, deliver your promises.”


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There were many promises made during the Brexit campaign, including several key pledges to Britain’s rural communities which Ewing is keen to secure in Scotland.

He directs his ire to George Eustice, the UK Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister, who was, unsurprisingly, pro-Brexit given his close links with the largely Eurosceptic fishing industry.

“George Eustice is a likeable guy and with whom I have a good working relationship,” said Ewing, clearly setting him up for a verbal battering.

“He made promises that after Brexit life would be at least as good, if not better, and it would be better in the fishing sector.

“He also guaranteed, without a shadow of a doubt, that there would be at least £2 billion of funding for the agriculture sector – ‘without a shadow of a doubt’ was his quote.

“Well, George, time to deliver your promises. What’s happening with the £2 billion? You said it was guaranteed. Is it?

“After the referendum, we’ve heard nothing clear whatsoever, and the meeting that was arranged was unilaterally scrapped.

“Not exactly reflecting the ‘respectful’ arrangements that the UK say they wish to have with devolved administrations when a meeting that was arranged for weeks, that everybody agreed was vital, was unilaterally scrapped with no notice for what we thought was a pretty thin reason.”

The impact of Brexit on the rural economy isn’t the most hotly debated topic in the land. Yet.

It doesn’t have the ‘us-versus-them’ pugilism of the Little Britain barricaders, the ‘why-can’t-we-all-get-along’ pacifism of the post-war dreamers, or the ‘who’s-going-to-pay-for-it-all’ penury of the bean-counting economists.

But it is, after all, what the European Union is largely about.

The Common Agricultural Policy was a key pillar of the Treaty of Rome that established the European Common Market to break down international tariffs and address deadly post-war food shortages throughout Europe.

When Britain entered the European Economic Community in the 1970s, a common fisheries policy (CFP) was created, but some suspected it was a hastily drafted stitch-up to capitalise on Britain’s vast fishing waters.

Prime minister Ted Heath wanted to smooth the path to ‘Brentry’ and offered no resistance to the CFP, and in a document unsealed decades later it was revealed that officials were briefing that British fishermen “must be regarded as expendable” in the negotiations.

The CFP gave continental fishermen unfettered access to UK waters, and it has been a fault line in European cohesion ever since.

When stocks began to dwindle, British fishermen found themselves grounded by quotas and resentment began to build.

Unsurprisingly, Fishing for Leave was one of the biggest cheerleaders for Brexit, including in the overwhelming pro-European Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon faces a challenge achieving her ambition of keeping Scotland in the European Single Market and appeasing the Eurosceptic fishermen who believe they are within touching distance of regaining control of their own waters, but fear they could once again be pawns in the constitutional power play.

It will be Fergus Ewing’s job to put those fears to rest.

“Obviously, in our differentiated Brexit plan we would come out of the CFP and there will be a sea of opportunity,” he said.

Obviously? There is little that is obvious about Brexit.

Theresa May is trying to serve up a ‘Great British Brexit’, while Nicola Sturgeon is seeking a separate side-order. It might be a bit too much for Brussels to swallow.

“We have provided a differentiated plan where we would come out of the CFP,” Ewing explains. “How will that allay the fears of fishermen? Absolutely, totally, wholly, completely.

“What they are concerned about – or many of them are beginning to be concerned about now – is an assumption that has been made by many fishermen, which may not prove to be well founded, that they will have total access to all fish in our exclusive zone.

“No! I have repeatedly asked face-to-face, to both Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice, on several occasions this simple question: can you guarantee that in the Brexit negotiations you will not, under any circumstances, trade away permanent access to Scotland’s exclusive zone?

“It has yet to be answered. English fishermen operating in the UK zone will have exactly the same concerns at the moment, because fishermen from other EU states are fishing in British waters.

“Our fishermen assume that, come Brexit, that will no longer be the case and expect the UK Government to stand up for their interests.

“I have asked the question – will you guarantee that there will be no trading away, on a permanent basis, these rights?”

He added: “So this absolutely fundamental question arises: will fishermen once again be regarded as expendable for the UK Government?

“They’re not the top priority, they’re not Nissan, they’re not the City of London, so will they be regarded as second league, a provincial concern, a subsidiary matter, something that can be traded away?”

Ewing is convinced he has the team to secure the best for Scotland from the Brexit negotiations.

He said: “When I attended the fishing negotiations, Scotland emerged with one of the best deals ever as a result of excellent work by our officials – who are regarded as the best in Europe, I have discovered from their peers.

“Our officials are extremely well respected, and take the de facto lead in many negotiations.

“It was an outstanding result, delivered through the hard work of our officials and I was proud to lead the delegation.

“One of the fishermen said that the relationship between the Scottish Government and the industry is ‘the envy of Europe’.”

Arguably, the same cannot be said about its relationship with farmers.

On Ewing’s first day on the job, when he replaced the longstanding Richard Lochhead in the post-election reshuffle in May, he was hit with a damning report by Audit Scotland warning Scotland could be hit by £125m in EU penalties for missing CAP payment targets.

It found “significant defects” in the five-year IT scheme created to administer the payments.

Ewing said: “My first priority is to put the CAP IT system in order so that payments are made in accordance with the permitted timescale and are put on a proper footing. That has been my top priority since day one in office.

“We are now looking at the order of about £5 million in penalties, or thereabouts, and we’ve paid 99.7 per cent of Pillar 1 payments due last year.

“But of course, I’m acutely aware that for any farmer, for any crofter, for any land manager that hasn’t received his or her entitlement or payment that there is frustration.

“Although, it is important to point out that there is always difficulty with some cases in every year, there’s always a tail, but last year, the tail was bushier than normal.

“So the first priority is good governance, we have to sort the IT problems and a huge amount of effort has been devoted to that, not only by myself but by my new team of top officials who have been resolute in their determination to tackle the task, and also the hundreds of people who work in the Rural Payments and Inspections Division local offices.

“That’s the most immediate priority, but the overall objective is to grow the rural economy in a sustainable fashion.”

A key part of this growth plan is digital connectivity.

Nicola Sturgeon beefed up Ewing’s cabinet post by adding the title ‘connectivity’ to the rural remit overseen by his predecessor.

“They used to talk about broadband being ‘the death of distance’ but now it is more the birth of opportunity,” he said.

“If you are digitally empowered in a rural area then you can do business anywhere in the world.

“Before the digital age, your market was very much restricted.

“If you’re running a bed and breakfast in Plockton or Pittenweem, then in the past you would have a limited marketing capacity, and perhaps a fairly narrow range of marketing opportunities.

“But now, with the web, the world is your market.

“That applies for many businesses. There are many businesses locating in rural Scotland now where there are good digital connections.

“I am the first cabinet secretary to have the word ‘connectivity’ in the title and, as everything else the First Minister does, [it] was done with consideration and forethought.

“It is because we recognise, for the reasons I have stated, that being connected is a sine qua non [essential condition] of operating for many businesses. If you’re not connected, you’re not able to function to full capacity.

“That is why we have been extremely pleased with the tremendous progress made by two contracts totalling £400 million between Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Government and BT.

“These contracts are delivering value for money. The aim is to deliver 95 per cent connectivity.

“Our policy is to provide 100 per cent connectivity by 2021, and the current two contracts aim to provide 95 per cent by the end of this year.

“It’s important to realise, had it not been for these two contracts, hundreds of thousands of premises and homes would not have had a connection.

“If it had simply been left entirely to the market, then the number of people and businesses not connected would be massively higher.

“However, for those people, particularly in rural and island communities who are not connected, the fact that many other people have got connected is of little comfort, so I appreciate that and that is why the next phase will be to roll out programmes to reach those that are not connected.

“That process is not an easy one. In fact, little about government is easy. Why should it be? Why should anything that is worthwhile be easy? Life doesn’t tend to be like that if you’re being realistic.

“But most certainly the complexities of the tender programme are such that we have to make haste slowly.

“For example, before we roll out the next phase of the connection programme, we have to conduct an open market review, which means that we have to gain information about who is connected and who is not.”

Ewing is enthused by the success of Scotland’s food and drink sector, which accounts for around a third of Scotland exports.

“Food and drink has been the most tremendous area of growth and success in Scotland,” he said.

“I do pay tribute to my predecessor, Richard Lochhead, who displayed a most vigorous and enthused leadership which I intend to try to emulate.

“Now we know from export stats that Scotland’s largest industry for exports was the manufacture of food and beverages at £4.8 billion in 2015.

“The sector has been the top exporting sector in Scotland, accounting for one third of manufactured exports.

“Whisky is hugely successful, and we’ve seen a tremendous growth in other spirits particularly gin.

“Also, salmon has been a great success story for Scotland and its aquaculture sector. Trout as well has been growing, and shellfish.

“We also have successes in craft cheeses, in high quality Scottish beef, lamb, poultry.

“Potatoes have been tremendously successful. We’ve grown into new markets like Kenya.

“Each of these are little worlds. I’ve gone to meet many of the people in these areas.

“I often think the poorer one’s voting record is in Holyrood, the harder one is working.

“The assumption is that you’re out there in ‘the real world’. The First Minister uses the phrase ‘getting in aboot it’. It’s a good phrase, and it’s my watchword, actually, because it’s what I try to do.

“Each of these worlds are displaying immense success in doing what they do as well as it can be done, and combined with entrepreneurial flair. Those are the two things.

“We have marvellous potatoes, we have great beef, but it’s the combination of the growing skills, the productivity, the efficiency, the willingness to use innovation, to adopt new practices – particularly greener practices – which is now becoming the market leader in growing. Harnessing that to entrepreneurialism is the key to success.

“In the farming sector, we must almost make the connection. It’s farmers that produce the food, and then it is processed, and the manufacturing side is a great success story as well in Scotland.

“We are never going to be supplying massive quantities, like New Zealand and Argentina, for example. We will always be going for the quality end, I believe.

“Combining the food and farming sectors, there are over 60 co-operatives and these provide individual farmers with the ability to sell to retailers.

“If you’re one farm selling cereal, you’re not going to get a contract with Morrisons.

“If you’ve got 60 farmers selling cereal, then you club together and invest jointly in silos that can keep the cereal in good condition for longer because this equipment is not cheap. It’s beyond the reach of most individual farmers.

“So the role of cooperatives has been to increase the capacity of the farming sector to work with the big supermarkets who obviously require the supply of high quality, constantly produced potatoes or lamb.

“I spoke to Waitrose the other week and they said that they work very closely with their farmers, and they have an 85 per cent compliance rate for lamb.”

However, he acknowledges that milk prices have been “an area of immense difficulty”.

“It’s a vastly complex area and it’s one where we are carrying out a lot of work. There are particular problems in some parts of Ayrshire and Argyll, for example.

“One of the longer-term challenges is to increase the range of market and processing capacity for dairy products.

“But on the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of commercial success as well – Mackie’s ice cream, Graham’s Dairy – but there is no doubt that the milk price, which varies enormously, has been a serious problem with many farmers having to sell below cost.

“On the wider issue of food and drink, we’re obviously concerned about the three main issues of access to markets, the continuation of availability of labour – the EU citizens living here and also migrant labour, particularly in potato and berry picking –and the prospects of the introduction of tariffs which will potentially further damage trade.

“On the issue of the support payment system for farmers, politics aside, if the UK succeeds, we will be out of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in April 2019.

“There is just two years to go, and there is no plan whatsoever of any kind brought forward by the UK Government to replace EU funding. Nothing. That is quite extraordinary.”

It’s not just the continent that’s causing concern. While Donald Trump is busy embracing the Great Russian Bear and carving up the Middle East into friendly/unfriendly countries, officials are busily working to open up the US to British food exports.

Beef has been banned for over 20 years, since the height of BSE or ‘mad cow disease’, and then there is the highly emblematic ban on Scotland’s national dish.

Haggis is regarded as offal unfit for human consumption in the States.

Ewing said: “We are determined to do everything we possibly can to see the reintroduction of exports to the USA.

“Beef exports is a key priority, and I’ve worked with the meat wholesale sector to secure that.

“Obviously, there is a legal overlay here. It’s a complex legal framework, but we’ve made steps to go through those processes to get to the finishing line.

“And we would love to deliver the Address to the Haggis at a location in the USA, where perhaps Burns is supported, it could be Washington DC, you don’t know who might turn up there, and address the Great Chieftain O’ The Puddin’ Race, whoever that may be.”

Efforts to get haggis to America have reportedly stalled in recent months, and Ewing is unable to shed any light on when the market will be open.

“I don’t do horoscopes. I’m not a tipster. I’m the Cabinet Secretary. I’m not about making predictions about what is going to happen. I’m about trying to get things done.

“When I wake up every morning, I think: what more can I do to promote rural life in Scotland, create jobs, create investment, help grow our great food and drink sector which is achieving great things.”

But surely Donald Trump, with his Scottish mother, his golf courses and his dislike of pesky environmental regulations, would welcome a haggis supper at the White House.

Ewing procrastinates at the mere mention of The Donald, and tries to filibuster his way through a number of inquiries as to whether he could actually do something good for Scotland.

Eventually, he responds with an ultra-cryptic statement, which may or may not betray his opinion of The Donald’s mettle.

“Well, as a general comment, I would say haggis is very good for the brain,” he said.

“I don’t think the environment comes into it here, because I don’t think anyone is saying that the haggis is damaging the environment.

“The haggis is a very friendly being, and doesn’t do any harm to anybody. Quite the opposite. It is a source of great pleasure and nutrition, and increased brain power to all who may consume it.

“It is about the ingredients, and that is the key issue. Obviously, we want to solve that, overcome that.

“Achieving these things isn’t easy, [or] straightforward, and therefore I’m not going to make promises and pledges but it is something worth aiming for and putting some effort in.

“I think the wider issue about beef exports is perhaps of more immediate commercial importance.

“Increasingly, looking to the future, I sense some younger farmers, particularly in areas like livestock, with a world-renowned product with a high reputation and high brand recognition – Aberdeen Angus, for example, worldwide known, high repute, known by people who may know very little else about Scotland.

“We need now to work hard with the farmers, with the representatives, with Scottish Development International, who are putting a lot of money into promoting Scotland’s food and exports in various parts of the world.

“It’s our job to help develop, deepen, create, new markets for our high quality food and drink products, and reopening the beef export market to the USA is high on the list of my priorities.”

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