Amidst all the talk about our trade with the EU – which is not at risk on exit – the Stay in side always ignores the most important fact. The UK imports far more than it exports to the rest of the EU.
It’s not as if we are uncompetitive generally, because we usually have a surplus with the rest of the world, despite buying a lot from China. There is something about the way the EU interferes with our markets and imposes on us sector policies which means we end up importing too much.
Perhaps the worst case is fishing. The UK should be self sufficient in fish. The EU’s common fishery policy has instead allowed many industrial trawlers to come into our fishing grounds from elsewhere, taking large catches. In response to the damage they do to the fish stocks, the EU then imposes severe quotas on UK fishing vessels. Contrast the port of Lowestoft today with the bustling fishing port of 1970 before we joined the EEC. Most of the fishing vessels have gone. The UK ends up having to import far too much fish because our own fishing grounds have been both damaged and controlled.
Milk and dairy products is another area where our import bill has been increased partly by the EU regulation of our own dairy sector. The imposition of milk quotas for many years left us short of capacity to fill our own demand for milk and milk based products. UK farmers were told they could not increase their herds or augment their production. More recently a general surplus of milk has caused other problems from the EU milk price collapse. EU mismanagement of its wider milk market has been difficult for farmers.
In total we are heavy food importers. It makes sense for us to buy in Mediterranean and tropical fruits and other fresh produce out of our season. The UK though has much good soil and a temperate climate making it suitable for food production, where we should be able to offset the cost of imports with our own exports. The CAP has got in the way of us doing that on a big enough scale. It has also imposed duties on cheaper produce from non EU countries which we cannot grow for ourselves.
Energy is a major area of growing imports. As with agriculture, this is bizarre. The UK is an island of coal set in a sea of oil and gas. We were pioneers of civil nuclear power. Today we are discovering more oil and gas onshore, and there are apparently abundant coal reserves offshore which new technologies could convert into gas or energy sub sea. Instead of doing this, we are being made more reliant on the EU. The UK is putting in more interconnectors to buy EU electricity instead of generating enough for ourselves. We are dependent on large quantities of imported gas, some of which comes from a continent vulnerable owing to its dependence on Russian gas.
It looks as if the EU is determined to lock us into their own rather insecure energy policy. They have required us to become more dependent on wind energy – something all too many UK politicians also supported – which means ending up dependent on imports for back up when the wind does not blow. We should instead have a UK based policy using our natural advantages of access to plentiful energy resources including hydro and tidal.
We also manage to end up importing a large amount of timber from countries with slower growing conditions than ourselves. The Forestry Commission fail to be ambitious enough in meeting our timber needs.
The Uk needs a programme to reduce import dependence generally. Being in the EU makes this so much more difficult. Outside the EU we could reduce our import dependence in fish, food, timber and energy more easily.