EU Referendum

Farmers better off outside the EU, says Owen Paterson

Tractor

Britain's farmers would be better off outside the EU, former environment secretary Owen Paterson has claimed.

The Eurosceptic Conservative MP said Britain would be free to set its own subsidies and - crucially - its own environment policies.

He said the "dotty idiocy" of EU directives had made flooding on British farmland worse.

Britain's farmers received £2.3bn in direct subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy in 2015.

In addition to basic payments they also have access to £3.9bn for rural development projects between 2014 and 2020. The CAP takes up 39% of the EU's budget - about 23p a day for every EU citizen.

Flood prevention

Richard Clothier, managing director of Wyke Farms, in Somerset, one of the UK's largest cheesemakers, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the CAP provided "funding stability" for farmers.

"If we were to leave the EU funding will be down to the discretion of the individual government," he added.

Image caption Owen Paterson was environment secretary between 2012 and 2014

But Mr Paterson said non-EU countries subsidised their food producers and funding would not stop if Britain left the Union.

"We could spend the same amount of money or more if we wanted to. We could spend it in a much more targeted and efficient manner," he told Today.

"You could have a much more integrated environment policy directed and tailored to our own environment."

This would allow the government to experiment with innovative flood prevention measures, such as "paying farmers to hold water on their land, to build reservoirs".

Currently, farmers receive money from the CAP for keeping land in farmable condition.

Foreign workers

Mr Paterson said the CAP was no longer a "blunt subsidy of food production" and had "morphed" into a continent-wide environment policy, with potentially disastrous consequences for individual member states.

And he claimed "dotty" EU directives on biodiversity incorporated into British law had contributed to widespread flooding on the Somerset Levels.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Burrowbridge, Somerset, where the Levels are covered in water after heavy rain

But Britain Stronger in Europe, which campaigns for Britain to remain in the EU, accused Mr Paterson of peddling myths about EU regulations.

Campaign spokesman James McGrory said: "At a time when families, businesses and communities are desperately trying to cope with flooding and to rebuild their lives, it is distressing to see Mr Paterson and other Leavers use the situation for their own narrow political advantage. Even more distressing is the fact that their arguments are utterly unfounded.

"EU directives affecting flooding and waterways are simple common sense, and any sensible British government would retain them if we left.

"Leavers, with their extreme anti-regulation agenda, seem to want to abolish rules which protect water quality and wildlife here in Britain, and which require regular assessment of the risks of flooding. Britain's environment would be unquestionably damaged by scrapping such rules."

The National Farmers Union does not officially take a position on whether Britain should leave the EU, because "we do not know the relationship the UK would have with the EU nor the conditions under which our farmers would be expected to operate if we left".

But in a briefing note on its website, the NFU points out the CAP is only one factor - trade tariffs and duties would also have to be taken into account in any post-exit negotiations.

It also stresses the importance for foreign labour to British agriculture, saying: "Any restrictions on our members' ability to recruit non-UK born workers would have a negative impact on their businesses."

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