The debate over Cornwall’s place in the European Union has never been short of wild claims – but here’s a new one: a vote in favour of leaving Europe could spell doom for the Cornish pasty.
Most of Cornwall’s business leaders, either officially or unofficially, are very firmly in the “remain” camp.
Major players like the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, and Cornwall Council, are doing their best to remain politically neutral – but privately their senior figures all warn that to leave the EU would, at best, bring massive uncertainty.
The continuing quest for a level-playing field would be abandoned in favour of a free-for-all in which Cornwall would struggle if locked out of the world’s largest market.
The issue has always essentially boiled down to one point: is the surrender of some sovereignty, in the form of Brussels-inspired bureaucracy and red tape, worth the undoubted economic benefit?
The answer: it depends on the kind of business you are trying to run.
A Cornwall Chamber of Commerce survey recently found 82% of Cornwall’s business people thought leaving the EU would be bad for business. Only 3% felt it would be positive.
“There is plenty that could be improved in the EU, but only by being within it can we exert influence over its decisions and direction of travel,” said Kim Conchie, Cornwall Chamber of Commerce chief executive. “To cut off these trading and strategic alliances at a time of great uncertainty in the world could be dangerous. For Cornwall and Cornish businesses overall, the EU has worked as a better mechanism for moving money from the wealthy parts of England (ie London) to the less well-off parts (ie Cornwall & Scilly) than our own government has ever done.”
Mr Conchie’s view – that Cornwall gets a much better deal from Brussels than it does from Whitehall – was supported by last month’s National Audit Office report, which revealed the government’s pre-election cash-hand-outs to LEPs put Cornwall near the bottom of its priority list.
Research commissioned last year by the Federation of Small Businesses found its members deeply divided – 47% to remain and 41% to leave – with many firms complaining about a lack of impartial information on the subject.
Most of Cornwall’s MPs, backing Brexit, agree about the lack of impartial information. They believe Cornwall should have confidence in the UK government.
“Europe has been a disaster for our fishermen,” said South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray, who has even changed her Twitter logo to reflect her support for the anti-EU membership campaigners.
But back to the pasty. Whisper it who dares, but there are reasons for thinking that a Brexit vote might reduce this mighty industry to crumbs.
The Truro-based Cornish Pasty Association, which campaigned for EU Protected Geographical Indicator Status (PGI) in 2011, says the sector’s value has doubled and is now worth £300 million a year and provides 2,000 jobs in Cornwall. The CPA has not surveyed its members specifically on the Brexit question, but is seeking clarification from the Government about what will happen if Britain votes to leave the EU.
The CPA says: “There are strong links between pasty production and local suppliers of the ingredients too – as much as £15 million is paid to Cornish farmers for ingredients for pasties, equivalent to over 5% of the total farmgate value of Cornwall’s farm produce.
“Pasties are sold in virtually every village and high street in the county and, therefore, support and uphold the local shops that are often the hub of communities and a lifeline for those without transport. Many bakers’ shops say their existence depends on the pasty.
“Pasty producers also sustain other local service industries such as engineering and transport.
“The PGI protects consumers in enabling them to distinguish a genuine Cornish pasty, while helping to ensure the sustainability of a vital Cornish industry.”
According to a recent study, pasties are now really big business. Cornwall Food and Drink said the county makes more than 120 million pasties every year. PGI acts as security for investment, discouraging those who would set up business elsewhere and flood the market with nasty, poisonous imitations.
Similar benefits attach to other products, such as Cornish Clotted Cream.
Much of the Brexit debate has so far focussed on the £600m which Europe is due to invest in Cornwall before 2020.
The European Regional Development Fund in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly is worth £438m and makes up 75% of our “Growth Programme” allocation, designed to lift Cornwall out of the “poorest in Europe” category.
But business leaders say the real risk is not so much from the eye-catching big infrastructure projects, like Falmouth University or Cornwall Newquay Airport, or countless industrial estates, or even from the huge agricultural subsidies which provide monthly pay cheques to Cornwall’s farmers, but from straightforward commercial day-to-day dealings with Europe.
Cornwall’s Food and Drink sector is worth nearly £2 billion a year and accounts for 18% of our entire economy – more than double the national average. It is easily Cornwall’s largest manufacturing sector.
While Brexit might lead to a loosening of the red tape, and an end to the interference of Brussels bureaucrats, could this do more harm than good? That answer will be revealed on June 23.