George Eustice believes farmers would continue to be well supported and have similar access to the single market if the UK left the EU. But his boss Liz Truss has warned Brexit would be a step in the dark for farmers.
Farming Minister George Eustice has outlined his vision for a ‘Plan B’ for UK agriculture outside the EU, built on an overhauled £2 billion support policy for the sector.
Mr Eustice announced at the weekend, following Prime Minister David Cameron’s confirmation of a June 23 referendum, he would be supporting the leave campaign, placing himself on the opposite side of the Brexit debate to Defra Secretary Liz Truss.
Appearing at the NFU conference on Wednesday, Mr Eustice, a UKIP candidate before he became an MP, sought to shed more light on what Brexit could mean for farmers.
He outlined a vision where UK farmers were freed from the dispiriting EU regulatory burden, while retaining simple access to the EU single market and financial support from Government to fund a more effective farm policy.
He said: "My own view is we would be better off if we take control.
"If we ended the supremacy of EU law we would be free to come up with fresh thinking on policy and to deal with some of the problems farmers have around regulation.”
During her conference appearance, Mrs Truss claimed leaving the EU would be a ’leap into the dark’ for farmers, generating huge uncertainty over vital trading relations and farm support.
Mr Eustice said apprehension among farmers was understandable.
But he said: "I don’t believe it’s a leap in the dark. People naturally feel apprehensive about big decisions but we mustn’t duck big decisions. I believe it’s the right step."
Before he announced his position, Mr Eustice said the onus would be on the ’leave’ campaign to come up with a ’Plan B’ for farming in the event of Brexit.
This week he sought to do that, outlining at least the broad bones of how a future UK farm support policy could operate.
He claimed a UK Government could invest £2bn, compared with the £3bn UK farmers receive from Brussels today, towards a new policy because it would save £18bn a year if it left the EU - a figure hotly disputed by former Liberal MEP George Lyon, who said it was a ’lie’ as it included the UK rebate.
Mr Eustice acknowledged he could not guarantee that level of support but said neither could anybody guarantee the future CAP budget if we stayed in the EU.
“If we left the EU we would stop sending £18 billion a year to the EU and we would have the resources to support our farming and environment," he said.
"I am absolutely confident if we took control, Parliament would kick in and you would see us thinking about farming again."
While stressing ’an element of the current area payment’ would be retained he said a ’fresh agricultural policy from scratch would not look like it does today’.
“We could dismantle the whole two-pillar structure we have at the moment," he said.
"But instead you would have a number of key objectives, including protecting food security, risk management tools and insurance schemes like we have in Canada, investing in science and technology and protecting and enhancing the environment with the sorts of agri-environment schemes we have now.
"I am also keen we introduce a new theme to reward high animal welfare systems, for example in the pig and poultry sectors."
Farmers could apply for individual schemes within the new policy, rather being tied to a single scheme with all that entails in terms of the complex application process and the burdensome cross compliance rules, he said.
A UK policy could be targeted to protect those farmers who need it, ’rather than just paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to large landowners who in some cases are not really farming or doing so very effectively’.
Mr Eustice refuted suggestions farmers would be hit by a lack of access to the EU single market.
He claimed retaining access in broadly its current form would be straightforward as the EU would not want to jeopardise its lucrative access to the UK market.
"I actually think it would be relatively easy to roll forward something akin to the singe market arrangements we have now," he said.
"We have trade deficit with the EU of about £60 billion a year. It is in their interest to continue sending their goods here."
Mr Eustice said he did not want to be ’prescriptive’ and put together a long document on a ’Plan B’ but said more ideas would emerge over the next four months.
In her speech to 1,400 delegates in Birmingham, Mrs Truss pointed out 60 per cent of the UK’s exports, worth £11 billion, currently go to the EU.
Highlighting the difficulty and time involved in negotiating new trade deals, she urged farmers not to take the benefits of free access to the single market, without trade barriers, for granted.
Asked about the likelihood a future UK Government would retain farm support at current levels outside the EU, she described this as one of the ’unknowns’ facing the farming sector.
"By voting to remain we can work within a reformed EU to reduce bureaucracy and secure further reform while still enjoying the significant benefits of the single market which gives us access to 500 million customers,” she said on Tuesday.
"The years of complication and risk caused by negotiating withdrawal would be a distraction from our efforts to build a world-leading food and farming industry.”
She said, following the Prime Minister’s re-negotiation, the EU would now have a target to reduce regulation.
"My view on Europe is there are benefits of being in Europe including the single market, which outweigh the costs.
"But there are costs in terms of regulation and what we need to do is to reduce the regulations and maximise the benefits of being in the single market.
"I have been clear decisions like on pesticides should be more of a national level decision. In the Prime Minister’s re-negotiation there was more scope for subsidiarity."
Mr Lyon challenged a number of claims made by Mr Eustice and the leave campaign during a lively debate with outspoken Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan on Wednesday.
He said it would be ’naive’ to expect the EU to grant the UK the same level of free market access it enjoys now, while UK farmers would face stiffer competition from imports as current tariffs were dismantled.
Any market access it enjoyed would be accompanied by a requirement comply with EU regulation - removing on of the key supposed benefits of Brexit for farmers.
It was also absolutely guaranteed UK levels of farm support would be slashed outside the EU, given the entrenched stances stances of the main parties on cutting direct payments.
He said: “We are better off inside a reformed Europe than standing alone and isolated outside.
“For us the CAP is far from perfect but at least it gives us a level playing field on farm support, safety nets at times of crisis, access to markets and the same rules on SPS and marketing.
“It ensures UK farmers are not disadvantaged against the vast number of heavily supported and protected agriculture sectors around the world.”
But Mr Hannan reiterated Mr Eustice’s belief that a UK would continue to support farmers, although he came up with a very different Plan B for support in the form of a flat rate payment without environmental conditions attached.
"I am certain we could do better by managing our own affairs and looking to our own interests.
"We could guarantee to pay farmers £90/acre for four to five years to bring them closer to EU average. And we’d be free to work in acres again."
He clashed with Mr Lyon over regulation, insisting it would be feasible to maintain EU trade while formulating our own rules across many areas, including GM crops.
Farmers at the conference were divided.
While the balance appeared to be in favour of staying, there was plenty of support for ’leave’ with many wanting more information to inform their decision.
NFU president Meurig Raymond echoed Mrs Truss’ concerns about farmers’ ‘fear of the unknown’ on issues such as support, trade and access to labour in the event of Brexit.
He said farmers needed more information from both sides of the divide about what the referendum could mean for the industry.
The NFU has not yet taken a formal position but will debate the pros and cons internally in April, after the publication of a report it has commissioned on the potential implications of Brexit by a Dutch University.