While EU member states argue over a ‘renationalisation’ of the CAP, Governments in the four nations of the UK are writing farming policy with no regard for common frameworks which could prevent unfair competition, says Dr Nick Fenwick, FUW director of agricultural policy.
Some six weeks after Defra’s ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation on the future of English agricultural policy closed, Scotland has launched its own consultation on supporting farming and crofting communities through the Brexit transition, and the shape of what might follow.
Meanwhile, officials in Wales are finalising the Welsh Government’s consultation on a post-Brexit land management policy, which is due to be launched in the coming days.
Northern Ireland is in a more uncertain position, as there is no Minister in place, but draft plans for a future policy have been agreed, and it is likely that in more normal circumstances a consultation would already have been launched.
All four documents, draft or otherwise, share one thing in common: They have been written in isolation and with complete disregard for any kind of common framework, because no such framework exists.
As such, the priorities and approaches which underpin proposals and discussions in the documents vary significantly, with, for example, direct support for farmers featuring far more heavily in the Scottish and Northern Irish proposals (or at least so we understand, bearing in mind some proposals are in draft form and yet to be signed off).
Of course, there is general acceptance in all the UK nations of the need for commonality in terms of food standards, pesticides, etc., and reaching a common sense position on such issues is relatively easy, although still a challenge from a technical and process point of view.
But in terms of policy frameworks relating to matters such as interventions, financial limits, minimising market distortion and preventing unfair competition within our small group of islands, the issue continues to prove too much of a political hot potato to address, meaning what we currently have can only be described as a carte blanche.
As it happens, the phrase carte blanche is currently also being used in relation to agricultural policy on the continent: Commission proposals to allow member states more freedom to design schemes within the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have attracted widespread criticism from member states and MEPs, who have warned such moves to ‘renationalise’ agricultural policies would inevitably introduce distortions and imbalances of the type the CAP is specifically supposed to prevent.
Amongst the proposals which have caused worry is the option for Governments to increase national co-financing of Pillar II budgets to make up for a cut in the CAP budget - something the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed has said “...could be the beginning of a slippery slope to dismantling the CAP....In other words, member states with deep pockets can co-fund Pillar II funding more than other member states can.”
To be fair, not everyone is opposed to such liberalisation - in fact three members of the New Flemish Alliance have asked for agricultural policies to be completely renationalised to allow more financial support to be given to Flemish farmers, although this seems to merely prove the point about the dangers of introducing too much flexibility.
EU Commissioner Phil Hogan has naturally defended the Commission’s proposals, stating that “the new delivery model is not a carte blanche for member states”, and that key safeguards would ensure a “truly common and truly European policy” and “a level playing field”.
The debate at an EU level is not just an interesting discussion to observe; it is of direct relevance to us here in the UK, as its outcome will dictate the support provided to those we will compete with at some level or other, whether in the UK or on the continent, and with or without tariffs and other barriers.
But above all else, the EU debate about the possible adverse impacts of liberal frameworks brings into sharp focus the relative absence of any such discussions here in the UK nations.
This void is mainly due to political differences and understandable national concerns about power grabs which would undermine devolution, meaning the issue has been dealt with by kicking it into the long grass - thereby creating a free-for-all which has allowed four nations to pen policy proposals in which any common themes might be regarded as incidental.
Or could it be that Brexit has given our politicians unprecedented insights into how single markets can operate safely and effectively without common rules?