THERESA MAY announced her Brexit plans on the eve of the latest gathering of the Scottish Rural Parliament, which made for a timely and passionate Brexit debate the following morning.

Around 400 delegates filled the auditorium at the Ryan Centre in Stranraer, all eager to listen to how the previous night’s announcement might impact on the future of post-Brexit rural policy. Journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart chaired the debate and was joined by the chair of Scottish Rural Action, Amanda Burgauer; the executive director of West of England Rural Network, Chris Head; and Scottish politicians Mike Rumbles from the Liberal Democrats; Colin Smyth from Scottish Labour and Dr Philippa Whitford of the SNP. A lively debate ensued, with issues over the freedom of movement, access to tariff free markets and agricultural subsidies generating the greatest interest.

Ms Burgauer made it clear that whatever your views on Brexit, our markets will never be the same again: “There is amongst some of the younger farmers, a sense of challenge and opportunity that we can farm in a different way that doesn’t need as much subsidy. However, the one thing that Brexit has changed forever is our markets.

“It’s no use being a farmer or a food producer if your market is not available to you without tariffs or without a supply chain that will get your produce there on time,” she stressed.

Dr Whitford added: “90% of all food and drink that goes outside the UK goes to the EU. All this talk about trade deals with America, Australia and NZ – they are producers and exporters, so the chance of us pushing goods into their market is quite small. Losing the EU market and the ability to have high quality food and drink and fresh agricultural products which are not undercut by hormone induced beef, chlorine washed chicken or American whisky labelled as Scotch, is critical for our food and drink industry,” she warned.

Mr Rumbles made the case that future guarantees over agricultural spending are the most important issue for the rural economy: “We have a spat over the future of rural support post-Brexit between the UK and Scottish Government that is holding us back.”

He referred to the UK Agri Bill which Michael Gove is currently passing through the UK parliament, which Scotland has chosen not to take a schedule in, on the basis that it doesn’t support Scottish interests.

“Fergus says we can do it ourselves, but so far nothing is happening and even NFUS has said they are worried about the legal basis for paying this £500 million,” said Mr Rumbles, referring to the amount of money which the UK rural economy receives yearly from the EU. “This money could disappear from our rural economy if we don’t get our act together.”

Discussion turned to future workforce concerns in key industries such as tourism and agriculture, which rely heavily on migrant workers. “What the UK Government are talking about for EU citizens is a tier two visa system and they are discounting people that they refer to as low skilled,” claimed Dr Whitford. “Therefore, you have to be earning £30,000 a year to qualify. Wealth and worth are not the same,” she stressed. “It is estimated that of the 2.4million EU citizens working here just now, around three-quarters wouldn’t qualify for a visa under this system.”

On the final day of the parliament, organisers Scottish Rural Action presented their Brexit policy statement to the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Michael Russel MSP. The statement included 10 areas of focus which were derived from workshops which had taken place around the country, reflecting the wider views and concerns of rural Scotland.

The policy statement called for reassurances from both the UK and Scottish Government’s that when Scotland leaves the EU it will continue to receive the same support for its rural areas and that funding will remain ringfenced in rural communities and not be repatriated in favour of urban areas.

A call for freedom of movement was included with an emphasis on attracting migrant workers and their families and a need to address rising issues of racism and xenophobia, which have increased since Brexit was announced. The paper also addressed the need to tackle the challenges of rural poverty, hardship and de-population and emphasised the necessity of an independent mechanism such as SRA to enable all voices of rural Scotland to be heard and to help shape national policy for rural Scotland.

Commenting on the policy statement, Mr Russell focused on the issue of freedom of movement, which he stressed was essential for Scotland and its economy: “The figures are unequivocal and the shock of ending this will be felt most strongly in rural Scotland. In my own region of the Highlands and Islands there are around 260,000 people of working age and it is projected that 20% will retire in next five to ten years.

“There is no natural regeneration of population in parts of Scotland and therefore we will be short of up to 80,000 working people in the Highlands and Islands region alone. Where do we find them? We can’t attract young people, so we of course only find them by migration,” he explained. “Migration is of course economically beneficial to the whole of Scotland and indeed the whole of the UK. Just on that one issue alone, what is being proposed by Theresa May will be economically and socially disastrous for Scotland."

He concluded by emphasizing that the consequences of the Brexit announcement would have huge ramifications for rural Scotland: “To witness a government collapse in real time in front of your eyes is absolutely astonishing; but there is a consequence from that and it will be felt the length and breadth of this island and beyond and the consequence will be felt in rural Scotland. Rural Scotland is always more exposed to economic, cultural and social shocks and the strongest and biggest impacts will be felt here,” he stressed.