EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan and former Defra secretary Owen Paterson have clashed over the prospects for British agriculture if the UK leaves the EU.
The two politicians debated the implications of the forthcoming in-out referendum during a plenary session at the Oxford Farming Conference.
The stay-or-leave vote was “arguably the biggest historic decision since the Reformation,” Mr Paterson told conference delegates on Thursday (7 January).
But farmers had nothing to fear if the UK left the EU, he added.
“I believe that the United Kingdom has a great future beyond the political arrangements of the European Union,” said Mr Paterson.
“This particularly applies to our agriculture and our environment.”
Outside the EU, the UK’s priorities should be to grow the rural economy, improve the environment and protect the country from plant and animal diseases, Mr Paterson added.
“I believe that the United Kingdom has a great future beyond the political arrangements of the European Union”
Owen Paterson, former Defra secretary
“The first priority in growing the rural economy should be to increase food production.”
A UK policy should encourage import substitution and the export of quality products. The government should direct public procurement, worth £2.4bn, towards UK producers.
“Agriculture and food production is hampered by our membership of the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP],” said Mr Paterson.
“CAP negotiations between 28 countries inevitably mean that we have to accept compromises – these are at best deeply unsatisfactory and at worst actively damaging to UK farmers.”
He added: “Outside the EU it will be essential to continue a significant level of support from the UK Exchequer.
Payments to farmers could be made by the UK government in the same way that Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland do, said Mr Paterson.
“In fact, the payments made by these non EU countries are actually much more generous than those paid by member states in the EU.
The EU contributed £2.9bn to the UK via the CAP and related subsidies. But the UK’s estimated net contribution to the EU budget was more than three times that figure at £9.8bn.
Mr Paterson said: “If appropriate, a sovereign UK government, no longer constrained by EU rules, could actually increase rural payments.”
But Mr Hogan suggested the future for UK agriculture outside the EU may not be as bright as it might first appear.
Mr Hogan said it was not for him to say how anyone should vote – that was a decision for the British people. But the CAP was not the “straw man beloved of so many critics”.
The stability brought by the CAP was the foundation for economic growth and jobs in rural areas and all along the food chain, said Mr Hogan.
“This policy is vital to farmers – and you don’t need me to point out that without farmers you don’t have a product to process or sell to final consumers.”
It would likely take 10 to 15 years for the UK to renegotiate trade agreements outside the EU, Mr Hogan told listeners.
“Outside the EU, agricultural spending would be subject to the same annual review by the British Treasury as any other department”
Phil Hogan, EU farm commissioner
The CAP was a legally binding contract between the EU and farmers up to 2020 – and could not be cut by the commission or any government during this period.
“Outside the EU, agricultural spending would be subject to the same annual review by the British Treasury as any other department,” said Mr Hogan.
“Can farmers compete with doctors, nurses and schools in such a review?
“This is especially relevant in light of the fact that the Defra budget is already down one-third since 2010, while other departments such as health, education, defence and overseas aid are ringfenced from cuts.”
Outside the EU, Britain would still want access to the EU’s internal market. But access would come at a price – just as it did for Switzerland and Norway.
“Would the British Exchequer be prepared to pay a price that fully guaranteed your access for agricultural products? Would it expect farmers to pay part of the access-fee through higher taxes.”