Like the New Forest for medieval kings, Smith Square in the heart of Westminster used to be happy hunting ground for political journalists.
It was where the main political parties held their press conferences, and 32 Smith Square was the headquarters of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
The building now houses the London offices of the European Parliament and the European Commission, an ironic twist considering how many Tories want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Even UKIP has a base at No 32.
My ‘prey’ on this occasion was the head of representation of the EC in Britain, effectively the EU’s ambassador to the UK, minus the diplomatic status and privileges.
Jacqueline (Jackie) Minor, pictured, is a rarity among EU officials. She is British – educated in her home town of Northampton and at Birmingham University. Most of the rest of the Commission’s staff in London are from other EU countries – Italy, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, and so on.
Immediately Ms Minor pointed to “one of the big issues of concern for the British government, which is the falling number of British officials.
“By population we should have 9 per cent of officials on a proportionate basis, but in fact we only have 4 per cent,” she said.
The main reason for the discrepancy is obvious to any Brit who travels abroad: languages, or rather the lack of any language other than English. If you want to work for the EC, you need at least one additional language in which you are fluent.
Ms Minor herself is fluent in French, and manages “a little bit of German and passable Dutch”.
A lawyer by training, she first went to Luxembourg to cover someone’s leave of absence at the European Court of Justice. It was only meant to be for a year, but her career path took her to the European Commission in Brussels and to a series of “very different jobs”.
“A great thing about the Commission is that you can have a whole range of different jobs. It offers several careers.
“I started off very legally focused, and ended up here doing something completely different.”
Her role now, and that of her colleagues in the Commission offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, is to explain what the EC does as the civil service of the European Union.
That means working with schools, think tanks and political parties, trying to dispel the idea that the Commission is full of Eurocrats sitting in their ivory towers in Brussels thinking up new regulations to make life harder for British businesses.
David Cameron’s recent promise to hold an “in or out” referendum after the 2015 General Election had, admitted Ms Minor, made her job “challenging”.
“But it has also helped us because it has put discussion about the European Union, what it does, how it does it, right back into public debate,” she said.
EC officials are not politicians so they have to tread a very fine line, navigating between the different sides of the argument.
“All we can do is to offer the facts, to offer information and to dispel some of the inaccuracies.”
In true diplomatic fashion, the EU ‘ambassador’ preferred the word “inaccuracies” to “myths” about the work of the Commission.
So she will not be getting involved in either side of the in/out argument, other than to provide “the facts”.
“The Commission believes that any decision on the future of the UK’s membership of the EU or about the referendum is a matter for the British Government and the British people,” said Ms Minor – before adding: “However, we in the Commission firmly believe that British membership enriches the EU, and, on balance, is good for Britain.”
And so to the biggest guzzler of EU funds: the controversial, complicated Common Agricultural Policy, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and is still being reformed to this day.
Agriculture contributes less than 2 per cent to the gross domestic product of the the 28 EU countries, yet it swallows up 40 per cent of the EU budget, which totals €150.9 billion this year (up from €147.2 billion in 2012). Surely that is out of proportion.
“No, the cost is not disproportionate,” Ms Minor insisted. “It is a falling percentage. It has fallen from 50 per cent to 40 per cent and is set to go down further over the next few years.
“Secondly, you have to be aware that agricultural spending in the EU comes almost exclusively out of the European budget, not out of national budgets.
“If you compare it, for example, with public spending on the railways, more is spent from the 28 national budgets on the railways than is spent across Europe on agriculture. But people don’t see that.
“Thirdly, and most importantly really, everything is focused on the cost, but the CAP also has benefits. We have to compare what is put in with the benefits we get out.”
First and foremost of those benefits, Ms Minor argued, is a stable and secure food supply.
Yes, but what about the wine lakes, and the butter- and grain mountains produced by farmers and growers being paid to produce more and more?
“There was a problem of over-production, but people have short-term memories. There were chronic food shortages, even to the extent of famine, in Europe after the Second World War.
“Although the CAP started off as a means of guaranteeing food production, increasingly over the years, we have moved towards securing a common public good – sound environmental stewardship of the land and also supporting the fabric of rural society.
“What you see in many other parts of the world is a flight to the city because rural life is not viable,” said the EC official.
But surely the head of representation can’t defend some of the huge subsidies running well into six figures each year which are being pumped by the European taxpayer into individual farms.
“They are quite considerable figures, but let’s be clear, the Commission wanted to introduce a cap on the amount of single direct payments, but member states did not want it to be fixed. “And one of the member states which most did not want it, was the UK,” Ms Minor pointed out.
New rules are now being introduced in an attempt to make the payments system fairer and more equitable so that a farmer in Latvia might expect to receive roughly the same per hectare as a farmer in France.
A guarantee is also being introduced which should mean that no farmer gets less than 60 per cent of the average payment per hectare.
Seven out of every 10 euros of the CAP budget go in direct payments, leaving a sizeable 30 per cent for the so-called Second Pillar – funds paid out to help farmers in the crucial task of looking after the landscape, environment and wildlife.
While there is a residual image of the rich farmer trundling around in his Range Rover, try telling that to a Shropshire hill farmer on a Sunday in January.
And Ms Minor stressed that farm incomes on average are 40 per cent below those of people living in towns and cities.
If CAP subsidies were withdrawn altogether, as some have suggested, many farms would become unviable.
“Who would look after the land?” she asked, adding: “It would cause enormous social problems.”
The EU ambassador also questioned whether Europe would again in years to come face food shortages and rising prices as developing countries increased demand for food worldwide.
“At some point we could be in real trouble again,” she said.
On the face of it, Shropshire’s dairy farmers might face difficulties from the phasing out of milk quotas, but Ms Minor had an answer to that one too.
Checking her notes, she pointed out that Britain’s farmers had failed to use up their quotas by an average of 10 per cent over the past seven years.
So the CAP, crazy and complicated to the layman’s eye, is working, not only for the farmers of Ireland and Estonia, but of Britain too, concluded the EC’s top official in the UK.
Downstairs in the swish new entrance hall of 32 Smith Square, I picked up a comic book published by the Commission to mark last year’s 50th anniversary of the Common Agricultural Policy.
In The Story of Three Generations of Farmers, Vincent, the third generation, summarises his family’s life over half a century: “It was, and still is, a tough life, but it is a rewarding one.
“People will always need food, so they will always need farmers. In times of economic and financial turbulence we still have our land. And the land will always work with us to give us the food we need, provided we take care of it.”
It’s expensive headgear but, if the CAP fits . . .