In the Hotseat: Richard Ashworth

The public perception of MPs and MEPs is at a low ebb. Many see Brussels as the ultimate gravy train, especially since the European parliament’s own expenses scandal of 2008. How do you respond to that accusation?

There is the perception and there is the reality. After the MEPs’ expenses storm hit we took swift disciplinary action against those involved. There were heads on plates. Then we revamped the expenses system to introduce full transparency and full accountability. All our claims are made public on a website and are independently audited.

Since the Westminster expenses crisis, journalists have tried to tar MEPs with the same brush, but they’ve come up with nothing.

The critics also point to the fact that the European parliament has two headquarters – one in Brussels, one in Strasbourg? Isn’t that just a massive waste of resources?

There’s a lot of history behind that. Strasbourg was chosen after the Second World War as a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany. The parliament then moved to Brussels in the 1970s, but the original Treaty of Rome still says that the European parliament has to meet for 90 days a year in Strasbourg. To change that would require a unanimous decision by all 27 heads of state. The French would probably agree to leave Strasbourg tomorrow, but they would require a lot of concessions. For example, they could insist on the UK joining the euro.

Earlier this year, David Cameron took the Conservatives out of the powerful European People’s Party in the parliament and set up the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. Hasn’t this led to a loss of influence and bundled you up with unsavoury bedfellows?

On 90% of issues we share the same views as the EPP. Plus we have a common enemy – the socialists. The fact is, on the agriculture committee the EPP does not have a majority and can’t do anything on its own. It has to form alliances. We are therefore consulted on everything and have the swing vote. If anything, we’ve gained influence.

As for unsavoury bedfellows, we have to understand that we have very different histories from our Latvian or Polish colleagues. They were under Russian control until 20 years ago. Expecting them to take the same approach as we do is uncompassionate and destructive.

The Lisbon Treaty has now been signed by all 27 member states and gives MEPs an equal say with farm ministers in deciding agricultural legislation. Is this good or bad for farming?

In terms of greater democracy, it makes sense. But it’s not without risks. On many issues, such as pesticides and pollution controls, the parliament’s voting has not been very farmer-friendly. And with some big issues coming up, like GMOs, the parliament is more likely to be influenced by sentiment and consumer concerns than the agriculture council. The system of proportional representation also means the Greens have more influence than they would otherwise get. Yes, there are risks.

The UK Independence Party recently put out its vision for agriculture, arguing that if we left the EU, we would save on red tape, save on costs and could devise our own policies while still being part of a free trade area. It all sounded pretty appealing.

It sounds more like wishful thinking. UKIP is fond of telling us that EU membership costs the UK £45m a day and we would be a lot better off out of it. But they only look at the £14bn gross annual cost. If you factor in the £7bn we get back from farm subsidies and structural funds and the £3bn rebate, the actual cost is just £4bn a year. Over half our trade is with the EU and the cost of tariffs if we were outside the club is more like £6bn. Also we would still have to meet EU regulations in order to trade with the EU, but we would no longer have a seat at the table to draw up those regulations. UKIP is full of false promises.

So what is your agenda for the next phase of CAP reform?

Security of food supply is vital and we cannot just leave it to the markets. You only have to look at the situation with gas to realise that. But if you want food security, you have to have a profitable agriculture and family farms have to be part of the outcome.

The CAP must certainly go on evolving and farmers must be free to respond to market demand. But they must also deliver more public goods, so I favour the transfer of funds from Pillar 1 (direct payments) to Pillar 2 (rural development). There still needs to be a safety net to guard against volatility and there certainly needs to be a strong CAP. But Europe’s farmers also need to wake up, get away from their commodity mentality and forge closer relations with their buyers.

And what is the future for the single farm payment?

Certainly there is a great deal of pressure to cut spending on agriculture post-2013 and there are voices on the budget committee calling for more co-funding with national governments. If that happens, it must be compulsory. As for the SFP, we need to look more closely at how we value the delivery of public goods.

The dairy sector has been especially hard hit this year, with EU producers even throwing milk away in protest at the low prices. What do you see as the best solution?

The High Level Group has been set up to address this and I fully expect them to come out with recommendations for increased market transparency and a code of practice. I think that the UK has been showing the way, with its stronger supply chains. The problem is, farmers are by nature ruggedly independent and lack initiative when it comes to co-operation. Too often they see themselves as commodity producers rather than partners in a supply chain. With quotas soon to go, they need to develop better commercial contracts that encompass shared investment and shared risk.

What role do you see for GMOs in the future?

We face a huge challenge – to increase food production from less land and less water. To do this, we need every tool in the box. We’ve already had all the easy wins. It is glaringly obvious that GMOs is the one thing that can give us the biggest return.

CAP Reform

Richard Ashworth is asking farmers to come up with their own ideas for simplifying the common agricultural policy, for a report being prepared by the European parliament.

You can take part in our Forum debate on FWi and we will forward any comments or suggestions you may have about CAP simplification to Mr Ashworth.

See more