Theresa Villiers has dismissed a senior Ulster Farmers’ Union official’s claims that food prices could soar if the UK quits the EU.
In an interview with the News Letter about her support for the UK leaving the EU, Ms Villiers argued that not only were farmers unlikely to lose money if the UK became entirely independent of Brussels but that actually their subsidies might be increased.
The interview was in itself highly unusual. Although it was conducted in Stormont House, a Government building, and although at points Ms Villiers was speaking as Secretary of State, at other points she was speaking as an individual who – because David Cameron has allowed his ministers to do so – was campaigning against the Government’s position to stay in the EU.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has said that “no compelling argument has been made that agriculture would be better off outside the EU”, and that “those supporting Brexit need to rise to that challenge”.
UFU deputy president Ivor Ferguson has claimed that if the UK left the EU it could see a 30 per cent hike in food prices. When asked about that claim, Ms Villiers was dismissive, saying: “I don’t believe the scare stories about rocketing food prices.”
She said: “My reaction to that is that of course subsidies to farmers are going to continue – in or out, they are going to continue.”
When asked if she could guarantee that they would continue at the current level, she said: “I don’t think one would want to say that it continues in exactly the same form, but arguably we’ll have cash to spare, so it’s not impossible that we could have a more generous system.”
Ms Villiers declined to say whether a more generous system of farm subsidies was likely, saying that was “for future decision” but added: “I don’t think there’s a credible political party that says they should be scrapped.”
She said that a UK system of subsidies could be less “bureaucratic” that the current Common Agricultural Policy payments.
She said: “I think every political party accepts that we need to continue with farm subsidies – for our food security and for our rural economy, it’s crucial that we support our farmers. There’s no one suggesting otherwise.
“So those kind of payments - maybe not in the same form, but they’d certainly continue - and the sorts of programmes that the EU has funded in Northern Ireland, again, it’s perfectly possible that we could continue to support them because we will have at least an extra £9 billion to spare.
“Even if we continue with every single penny of funding which the EU currently provides in Northern Ireland, there’d still be money left over. This is about ensuring that decisions over those taxpayer funds are actually made here in the UK, rather than in Brussels.”
Setting out her fundamental objections to the EU, she expressed concerns about sovereignty and money. The Chipping Barnet MP said: “I think we’d just be better off if we took back control over making our own laws again in this country. That means that we can hold to account the people who make our laws by voting them out at a General Election if we don’t agree with them.
“We [would] also get back control over more of our money - our total contribution to the EU is £19 billion; OK, the net contribution is only about £9 billion but that’s still significant. You could still support a lot of worthwhile programmes, support a lot of farmers, help fund our NHS...”
While the UK is a net contributor to the EU, Northern Ireland as a region is a net beneficiary, making it more difficult for Eurosceptics to persuade undecided voters in the Province.
Ms Villiers said that she had several meetings with Mr Cameron over recent months to discuss the issue, “most of which took place before Christmas”.
“He was, from the start, very understanding. I mean, he knows that I’ve had a long-standing position on this.”
She said that her first ever conversation with Mr Cameron was on the issue of the EU, when he was standing for the Tory leadership in 2005.
Ms Villiers – who at that point had just entered Westminster as an MP after being an MEP – said that the “quite lengthy discussion” had involved her urging Mr Cameron to take the Conservatives out of the EPP group in the European Parliament, something which he subsequently did.
“We have quite a lot of history on this, the Prime Minister and I, so he knows that it’s just something that’s always been... an important issue for me.”