Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has suggested UK agriculture could be better served if Britain leaves the European Union. Read the full report from Farmers Guardian’s CAP reform web debate and view the replay here.
On the day Prime Minister David Cameron finally announced he will offer the British public an ‘in-out’ referendum on membership of the EU, Mr Paterson said the UK would ‘do a good job’ of making its own decisions on agricultural policy.
He told a Farmers Guardian web discussion on the CAP: “I’ve always been clear that decisions should always be made as close as possible to those who are affected. I’m convinced that we would do a good job making our own decisions.
“Within Europe the CAP is moving away from pure food subsidy to a more environmental policy, and we are seeing that in the negotiations it is impossible to impose a one-size-fits-all policy.”
Later, he added that the Prime Minister was already reviewing which powers should remain ‘at continental level’ and which should be at national level.
“I’m completely clear that as we move towards a more environmental policy, these sort of decisions are much better made at national and local level,” said Mr Paterson, who is considered to be a leading Eurosceptic within the Conservative Party.
During the debate, Mr Paterson was repeatedly challenged over his determination to push for the removal of direct payments at some point after the next version of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) ends in 2020.
“I get frustrated with suggestions that subsidies are the be all and end all of agricultural success,” he said.
“I’m convinced that UK farmers will prosper selling top quality produce in the UK, in the single market and exporting to the wider world.”
“Until 2020 I’m clear that pillar one will be significant. But given austerity and high food prices, I believe the public will only tolerate significant subsidy in return for environmental and other public goods.”
Mr Paterson said the Government was working closely with the farming sector to ‘help it improve its own competitiveness and seize export opportunities’.
But he said: “I acknowledge that there is a particular issue around hill farming where a significant tourism industry depends on farmers maintaining the environment, and there is vital role for public subsidy.”
But NFU combinable crops chairman Andrew Watts complained that Mr Paterson’s was ‘not addressing the issue of increasing production, whilst taking good land out of production and into environmental schemes’.
“This is only going to create further tensions between food supply and environmental stewardship,” Mr Watts said.
Mr Paterson also expanded on his plan to use of the Entry Level stewardship Scheme (ELS) to qualify farmers for the 30 per cent ‘greening’ element of future direct payments under the current CAP reform.
He said using ELS to ‘automatically qualify for greening’ could ‘free-up resources in Pillar Two for additional priorities’. He said it would also remove the ‘complex set-aside ideas’ proposed by the European Commission from the greening equation.
Responding to suggestions from the NFU’s CAP adviser Gail Soutar that this would be an example of UK ‘gold-plating’ of EU regulation, he said: “We have consistently made it clear that we want to keep schemes simple, having been hammered by 550m Euros in disallowances or fines, after the horror of the last reform. We want the schemes to be workable and to deliver genuine public goods acceptable to the taxpayer.”
In his Europe speech, Mr Cameron said: “We will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.”
He said the relevant legislation will be drafted before the next election and, if a Conservative Government is elected in 2015, it will hold the referendum within the first half of the next parliament.
He added: “Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so. So could any other Member State.