Two political heavyweights went head-to-head on the second day of the Oxford Farming Conference, both debating their stances on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire and former Defra Secretary of State, and EU Commissioner Phil Hogan both took to the stand to explain what impact membership or non-membership of the EU could have on British agriculture.
According to Mr Paterson, UK agriculture is “heavily constrained by the EU” and is “held back” by EU prejudice against advanced technology and science.
Mr Paterson also believed that UK agriculture would be better off outside the EU and called the decision that faces the British public the “biggest historic decision since the Reformation”, and encouraged the UK government to adopt the innovation principle, which he claims the EU has shied away from to date.
“It would force European policymakers to face up to the potential benefits of any innovation rather than just strike them down,” he said.
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He referred to Europe as becoming “the museum of world farming” due in part, he believes, to the “obstinate refusal” of the EU to adopt advances in technology.
The UK leaving the EU would not restrain the UK’s ability to trade in the global market, according to the MP.
“I have talked to the US and they would do a deal with us. There is a real interest in working with a sovereign UK,” he said. Read Owen Paterson's speech here.
In response to Mr Paterson’s argument, EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan recognised that more could be done when it comes to technology and science.
“There is recognition in the EU that we need to do more and science is back at centre stage. We need to do more to enshrine the innovation policy and put science back at the centre of decision making,” he said.
Commissioner Hogan said that the rural economy is “undergoing a renaissance” which is fuelled by more demanding customers.
He questioned Mr Paterson’s view regarding trade deals and whether the UK would be able to match existing trade agreements.
“It would likely take the UK 10 to 15 years to negotiate deals we have already done with South Korea and Canada. Would they match a deal the EU has already signed up to?” he said.
Commissioner Hogan said that there is no free pass if you are outside the EU and that the UK may not make it into the room when it comes to trade negotiations.
“Before you knock down the house, be clear what you would rebuild in its place,” he said.
The NFU has not taken a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance ahead of the conclusion of the renegotiation, and instead has assessed the pros and cons of the UK’s existing relationship with the EU.