The subject of the EU Referendum was high on the agenda at this year's Oxford Farming Conference - and what it would mean for the farming community.

A spirited debate on whether British farming would be better off in or out of the EU brought last week’s Oxford Farming Conference alive. Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, a passionate advocate for a ‘Brexit’, was at his most captivating, but Irishman Phil Hogan, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture
and Rural Development, countered that ‘knocking the house down’ could prove disastrous.

Mr Paterson, a founder of Vote Leave, described the Europe referendum, which some pundits think could take place as early as this summer, as ‘arguably the biggest historic decision for the British public since the Reformation’. He said it was ‘tosh’ that UK farming would ‘fall off a cliff’ if the country votes to leave the EU and cited as beneficial examples of independence Norway’s leading role in global discussions on fishing and the ability of New Zealand and Australia to prevent animal and plant disease.

‘Agriculture is hampered by our membership of the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP],’ he said. ‘Negotiations between 28 countries inevitably mean that we have to accept compromises which are, at best, deeply unsatisfactory and, at worst, actively damaging. Imposing a pan- European environment policy has proved impossible. Many aspects of “Greening” are intrusive, costly and difficult to administer and some are wholly unsuited to the UK.’ He adds: ‘The EU and European market are not one and the same.

We can leave the political arrangement of the EU, but still enjoy access to the European market. Five million Europeans depend on sales to the UK, so those who trade with Europe have nothing to fear.’ Mr Hogan responded that the current renaissance in Britain’s agriculture is largely thanks to EU negotiations. He said: ‘I am adamant that the stability brought by the CAP is providing the foundation for economic growth.

The historical mission of the CAP is to ensure the sufficient supply of safe and sustainably produced food at a quality which our consumers expect, despite the uncertainties which farmers face, such as weather, animal disease or market prices.’ Mr Hogan added that, if agriculture had to compete with health or education for Treasury funding alone, farmers could not compete with doctors, nurses or schools.

Delegates were intrigued to hear current Defra Secretary Liz Truss say that her department doesn’t have a ‘Plan B’ in the event of an ‘out’ vote. Miss Truss, who is arguing that the EU’s unpopular three-crop rule and the ‘absurd’ requirement for farmers to put up ‘ugly posters’ to publicise their EU funding should be dropped, commented: ‘I fully support the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of our relationship with the EU. There are clearly big benefits in being in, but also big costs. But the key point is that, in the end, the British people will decide because we kept our promise to deliver a referendum.’

CLA President Ross Murray said the Government must provide reassurance that ‘all risks and eventualities are identified and fully planned for’. He went on to add: ‘This must include commitments to maintain investment, at the levels currently made by the EU, in agriculture and rural economic development. We will be persistent in seeking this reassurance because rural businesses need confidence to continue the vital investment necessary that creates jobs now and long after the referendum.’