Should we stay or should we go?
Debate chair BBC’s Charlotte Smith set the tone with this question at the start of a fast-moving, informative and highly entertaining Oxford Farming Conference debate on what, according to one of the protagonists Owen Paterson, is the biggest historic decision for the British public since the Reformation.
The former Defra Secretary traded blows with EU Agricultural Commissioner Phil Hogan for an hour on the question of whether UK agriculture would be better off outside the UK.
Mr Paterson built his case for farmers being better off out on UK agriculture gaining more political and economic clout outside the EU, while being free of its regulation but still well supported by Government.
But Mr Hogan responded with a robust defence of the EU’s role in British agriculture, the collective power of the EU’s 28 members on a global stage and a strong rebuttal of some of Mr Paterson’s key claims.
With the referendum potentially taking place as early as this summer, following Prime Minister David Cameron’s re-negotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the latest polls show the outcome remains very much in the balance.
"This is an extraordinarily important issue," Mr Paterson told the conference at the start of a passionate speech delivered at breakneck speed.
At the heart of his argument was the belief that, ‘freed from the encumbrance of the EU’, the UK would gain more power in the global market and on the world’s political institutions.
In a post-EU world, the UK would still ‘enjoy access to the European Union, trading freely with European neighbours’ but would be in a position to develop new bi-lateral trade deals without waiting for ‘lengthy all-encompassing treaties such as TTIP’, Mr Paterson said.
“Outside the EU, we would be able to take a full seat on the world bodies that determine global regulation,” the Shropshire MP said.
He said: “The UK is currently represented by just 1/28th of a seat by the EU at the WTO, the OIE, the world organisation for animal disease, and Codex Alimentarius, the body which regulates guidelines relating to foods, food production and food safety.”
“With a seat on these bodies the UK would have a much greater say in the rules UK farmers have to comply with, he added.”
Outside the EU, farmers would be freed from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which in its current form hampers UK food production and exasperates farmers with its complexities and burdens, such as the three-crop rule and Environmental Focus Areas (EFAs).
Mr Paterson, set to play a prominent role in the 'out' campaign, was adamant, however, UK farmers would continue to receive a ‘significant level of support from the EU exchequer’ as is the case in Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.
Pointing out the UK’s net contribution to the EU is more than three times the current EU contribution to the UK CAP budget at £9.8bn, he said:
“By leaving the political structures of the EU, a UK policy could not only pay as much, if not more than the CAP, but funds would be allocated in a much more effective and targeted manner by policy makers with a full understanding of the UK industry and environment’.
He suggested subsidies could be tailored to the UK unique landscape, targeted in particular at upland areas where there is currently no market mechanism to reward the public good farmers and landowners provide, with lowland farmers largely unsubsidised.
And regulation could be ‘massively simplified’, including the creation of a ‘gold standard for the best performing, most trusted farmers’, who would not be subject to regular inspection.
A UK Government could replace the restrictive EU ‘precautionary principle’ that enables it ‘ban anything at a whim’ – such as neonicotinoid pesticides - with an ‘innovation principle’ to underpin its regulatory approach.
This would enable the UK to embrace modern technologies such as GM currently ‘blocked politically’ within the EU.
Mr Paterson concluded: “I am convinced that if we want to boost British agriculture and improve the environment we need to leave the European Union and re-establish ourselves as a sovereign nation making our own laws in our own Parliament and retaking our rightful place on the world’s regulatory bodies.”
When his turn came, Mr Hogan began with a strong defence of the CAP, which he said had been ‘extensively reformed’ in recent years, something he pointed out Mr Paterson had been involved with.
“The CAP has become more liberal, more flexible and more outward looking – more focused on trade on the global market marketplace,” he said.
The CAP, he claimed, had brought stability and is providing the foundation for economic growth and jobs in rural areas all along the food chain, he pointed out.
He acknowledged, however, that the latest reform was ‘more complicated than it needs to be.
“For everyone’s benefit we need to make things simpler. This is one of my objectives over the next few years,” he said, outlining the steps he is already taking simplify CAP greening and the application process.
“The next round of CAP simplification will see 200 existing EU regulations reduced to 40 or 50.
He went on to stress the collective clout of the EU and the CAP on the global stage, recalling how negotiations at the December WTO Ministerial summit, featuring 162 countries, concluded with just five big players thrashing out a deal – the US, China, Brazil, India and the EU.
There was no Japan, Australia, Canada or Norway – the suggestion clear the UK would not be invited to this elite company in a post-Brexit world.
“We used our combined weight and power to push for a fair and level playing field for EU farmers on the global scale,” Mr Hogan said.
“The EU effectively pushed a British priority – free and fair trade in agriculture – the EU advanced British interests.”
Addressing global trade, he pointed out Britain, as part of the EU, has a ‘significant agricultural interest’ in many of the bilateral trade deals the union is currently negotiating, including the end of US restrictions on beef imports.
Over the past years it has negotiated Free Trade Agreements with South Korea, Canada, Columbia, Singapore, Vietnam and is in the process of negotiating a deal with Japan on top of ‘advanced’ negotiations with China.
“How would Britain with a population of 60 million fare in negotiating with countries like China, with a population of 1.3 billion? In the EU it punched at a weight of 500m.”
It would take the UK 10 to 15 years to negotiate some of these deals. He asked: “What are they going to do in the meantime?”
He pointed out continued access to the EU single market would come at a price, as Switzerland and Norway will testify.
He suggested the UK Treasury would keen to pass at least some of this access fee onto farmers.
Delegates challenged the two speakers during a lively question and answer session.
Mr Paterson was questioned by NFU president Meurig Raymond on his belief the UK Government would be prepared to support farmers to the same level, given previous calls from UK politicians of all parties and civil servants to significantly reduce CAP subsidies.
He responded by insisting politicians would be keen to continue supporting UK farmers, insisting there was no appetite to see subsidies slashed.
In response to Defra Secretary Liz Truss’s admission there was currently no ‘Plan B’ for Brexit, he agreed Defra should be formulating such a plan now.
Delegates warmed to a debate that saw fiery exchanges but was generally good humoured – and set the tone perfectly for the months ahead and a vote both speakers agreed was of huge significance to the UK - and in particular its farmers.
Was there a winner? Many in the audience were impressed with Mr Paterson’s delivery and admitted to being swayed from their original position.
But Mr Hogan gave as good as he got as the debate heated up, issuing forceful ripostes to some of Mr Paterson’s claims.
Honours just about shared, then. For now.