Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has commented on this week’s developments regarding the UK Government’s on-going EU reform negotiations.
He said: “This week Prime Minister David Cameron updated the House of Commons on his efforts to secure EU reforms. The negotiations appear to be at a crucial stage, with reports suggesting that the deal could be in place next month, paving the way for the referendum in June.
“Mr Cameron also confirmed that Ministers will be free to campaign for either side during the in/out referendum campaign.
“The decision to remain in or leave the EU is crucial for everyone in the UK, especially our farmers and the wider agri-food industry. The impact of EU membership on agriculture and the possible implications of a British exit from the EU, so-called ‘Brexit’, appeared to feature very heavily in the debates at this week’s annual Oxford Farming Conference.
“In particular I noted that during his debate with EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan the former Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson criticised the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) plus claimed that leaving the EU would allow the UK to set its own agricultural policy and negotiate its own trade deals.
“The EU is not perfect, other Member States also recognise the need for EU reform and that is why I feel it is important to await the outcome of the on-going negotiations to assess what reforms the Prime Minister secures. I do however find Owen Paterson’s criticism of the CAP somewhat ironic given that when he was the Secretary of State tasked with representing the UK during the CAP reform negotiations he failed to seize the opportunity to get a better deal for the industry locally on a number of occasions. For example he refused to ask for more funding for Rural Development at a time when all other Ministers were lobbying hard for their farmers and agri-food industries and getting significant boosts to the allocations for their Member States.
“Reports suggest that at a separate event at the conference Mr Paterson’s successor, the current Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss, confirmed what many of us suspected, namely that the Government has not worked out how agriculture could be supported should the United Kingdom vote to leave the EU.
“From a Northern Ireland perspective this issue is of even greater significance given that we are the only part of the UK to share a land border with a Eurozone country, for example our producers are already suffering from the weakness of the Euro against the Pound, which has exacerbated difficulties across all sectors in recent times. When I met Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond last year I warned him of the need to bear in mind the specific challenges faced by Northern Ireland in relation to the issue of EU membership.”
The MEP concluded: “The reports from the various debates at the Oxford Farming Conference highlight that there is a lack of clarity as to what the UK’s relationship with the EU would be like in the event of Brexit and how agriculture would be affected. Of course at this stage the negotiations continue so we do not know what reforms the Prime Minister actually secures.”