MEP warns of 'deep worries' over likelihood Britain may leave EU
Britain has never been closer to leaving the European Union – which would mean a serious reduction in the £400 million of annual funding the South West currently gets, an MEP told a debate on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform.
Liberal Democrat Sir Graham Watson made the "depressing" prediction at a flood-affected event staged by the European Parliament, in Exeter.
His Tory counterpart, and member of the agriculture committee, MEP Julie Girling was unable to attend and offer her view on CAP talks – described as "crucial" to the Westcountry – because her home was flooded.
Sir Graham said the British Government's desire to see farmers weaned off European Union handouts meant support payments under a "renationalised" farming budget would be much reduced.
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He told the audience at the National Farmers' Union (NFU) regional headquarters he was "deeply worried" about CAP reform, but said the matter may be irrelevant if Labour popularism and Tory scepticism combines to produce a referendum and an early exit from the EU.
"In no time in the 18 years I have been a member have I thought we were this close to leaving the EU," he added.
"I am sorry that's a rather depressing note on which to end but it is only fair for me to share my very serious concerns at this moment."
The meeting was opened yesterday by Alex Stevens, of the NFU, who laid out its main demands for the CAP negotiations, which cannot begin in earnest until the EU budget level is resolved.
The CAP is under discussion by a 44-member agricultural committee, described by Sir Graham as a "conservative forum wedded to the defence of vested interests". The next swathe of funding will run from 2014 until 2020 and there are slim hopes that a deal may be done during the first six months of next year, when Ireland holds the EU presidency.
Mr Stevens called for the CAP to go back to its roots, in the EU's founding Treaty of Rome, as a truly common policy, which should be simpler and fairer than the hugely complicated system which so frustrates farmers today.
He said there were three key issues, topped by "Greening" – the environmental requirements qualify for subsidies.
Also controversial is the definition of an "active farmer" and how much of the direct payments to support farmers should be put into supporting nature, a number which could rise to 30% under proposals from Defra.
Mr Stevens added: "It is hard to know how it will all look until after the budget but it is seriously complicated".