Easier trade with EU is ‘work in progress’, says PM to woo rural voters

EASIER trade with the EU is a “work in progress”, Rishi Sunak has said in a bid to win farmers and rural voters ahead of the general election.

The Prime Minister used a speech at Tuesday’s National Farmers’ Union conference to unveil a package of measures to help farmers.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a Q&A session with National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President Minette Batters


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a Q&A session with National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President Minette BattersCredit: Reuters

It comes as the sector says it is struggling with rising costs,  reliance on cheap imports and a new post-Brexit payments scheme that focuses on sustainable agriculture.

Asked during a Q&A what the Government was doing to bring down barriers to trade with the EU, the PM said: “What we’re doing is working very hard with individual countries to ease all those areas where there are differences.

“I’ll be totally honest, it’s a work in progress. But we are making progress.”

He said ministers are having talks with the EU on electronic authorisations and that he is committed to ensuring farmers are not undercut in post-Brexit trade deals.

But in his speech, the PM slammed the pre-Brexit status quo, arguing the bloc’s Commons Agricultural Policy “held back farmers”.

He said: “I know that the transition from the Common Agricultural Policy has been frustrating. It’s taken time and I appreciate the perception that we didn’t always get the balance exactly right.

“But I still believe that the vision is the right one. Cap disproportionately rewarded the largest landowners and held back smaller farmers.

“It did little for food productivity or the environment. It was far, far too bureaucratic.”

The measures announced by the PM include the launch of a UK-wide Food Security Index to monitor the country’s reliance on imported produce and £15 million fund to help tackle food waste.

The PM said he was committed to improving food security and sounded the alarm over low self-sufficiency in “things like tomatoes, pears, plums, lettuces and apples”.

He also highlighted the £427 million in grants in 2024, including a doubling of the amount going to technology and innovation schemes to £220 million to support farmers increase productivity – such as robotics, roof-top solar and agricultural research.

The money is part of the Government’s commitment to maintain support for English farming at pre-Brexit levels of £2.4 billion a year.

Mr Sunak was the first prime minister to address the conference since Gordon Brown in 2008.

It comes as polling shows a drop in Conservative support in their traditional rural heartlands, with Labour recently making a pitch to become “the party of the countryside”.

But Environment Secretary Steve Barclay this morning denied Mr Sunak’s attendance at the conference was due to electoral fears.

Asked whether this was the case, he told LBC: “No, I worked with the Prime Minister, I was obviously his deputy in the Treasury, and when he asked me to do this role I was very keen that he did come to the NFU conference.

“I think it is important to signal that the whole Government is absolutely focused on food production and food security. I think the importance of food security has increased given the volatility around the world.”

He also attacked Labour as an “urban” party “full of London MPs that don’t understand our rural communities”.