It was back in 2013 that I predicted in the Romanian English-language press that the failure of Brussels and the western EU member states to effectively support the regeneration of rural Romania would lead to the demise of the EU as we know it. My rational was that the arrival of a post-2013 flow of migrants into the UK would tip the balance in a UK referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Given how narrow the vote was, I believe that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are now working through the consequences.
After the 2016 referendum result my reaction was that as the consequences of leaving were fully appreciated, the British public would demand a second referendum and that would come down in favour of Remain. Now I do not think that it will be the case, Leave will mean Leave. That said, pragmatism will mean that EU-UK trade will flow freely and so will, by and large, EU and UK citizens.
The reason for my change of mind is because I think that the arch-Leaver, Michael Gove, has hit upon a golden goose when it comes to swaying the British voter. It is a goose that transcends party politics and talks to the many. It is the opportunity to re-write British farming and food policy. The CAP has long been disliked by the UK public as it has been construed as a feather-bed for Range-Rover driving farmers. It may be misunderstood, but £3 billion was a number that they consider large enough to warrant serious consideration. At £50 per head of the UK population, it is not that great and much lower than that paid by the tax payers of its immediate island neighbour. More would have gone to support the CAP’s coffers for payment to farmers outside the UK.
Demonstrating to the British public the positives of leaving the CAP will be driven forwards over the coming months, and it will be done in such a way as to have mass voter appeal. We may also find that many farmers signing up to a much different policy. One can see that it is already swaying some who would be adamant Remainers and no fans of Mr Gove. There are already noises around that the UK, freed up from Brussels, may indeed be the trailblazer for the development of a totally new approach to food, farming, rural and environmental policy. And Brussels may eventually follow.
The development of a separate, stand-alone alternative to the CAP is also coming when there is talk about some renationalisation of the CAP. If such had come earlier and loudly proclaimed, maybe that would that have swayed the 2% of Leave voters to stay and Brexit may have remained no more than a glint in Nigel Farage’s eyes. Then again, maybe that would have required the joining together of too many dots.
Again, back in 2013, I was questioning whether the one-size-fitted-all CAP operating across the EU-28 was truly sustainable. My view was that on the green front leading countries like the UK were being held back by a centralized CAP. Further, I was aware of how CAP payments were being distributed in some locations and if it became widely known that a few received rather a lot, there would be a clamour from contributing member states for change. In the end the 2013 reforms were something of a damp squib and a missed opportunity. Maybe greater CAP reform would have been sufficient to swing the necessary few British voters, or was EU migration the ultimate issue?
From an Irish perspective, any moves to renationalise the CAP will be interesting. If each national budget is established in Brussels and allocation is decided in Dublin, will it make that much difference? It is not as if there is that much debate at the national level, be it in farming or politics, about the direction Irish agri-food is taking. For farming lobby groups, it is about how much their members get and for the agri-food industry it is about the EU/Irish taxpayer picking up any shortfalls that occur in farm incomes from the market not delivering an adequate, sustainable farm-gate price.
What would happen if, as in the UK, the general populace gets a whiff of an opportunity to have a major say in an Irish farming and food and environmental policy? One can see the green lobby becoming highly excited. The Irish taxpayers spend per head is also rather more than in the UK and it is likely that they would want a far greater say in what they get in return for their taxes. Providing support to an industry that feeds the world first and Ireland’s population second may not be considered acceptable. Any further decline in Ireland’s environment, water resources and GHG emissions performance will also not pass muster. In an industry resistant to change, any renationalisation of the CAP must be forestalled, whatever it takes.
Without the UK, a more radical member state, maintaining the CAP status quo should, in theory, be easier. Seeing Michael Gove collecting his golden eggs from the populace may, nonetheless, be too appealing a picture for politicians elsewhere in the EU. It may incentivise those who want to see a much-changed CAP. Judging by the recent CAP reform public consultation, there is much interest in reform from outside the immediate farming envelope and those who have made submissions, otherwise frustrated, may take faith from policy developments in the UK. And, France, may not be the bastion of resistance to CAP change that some may assume. If the political motivation there moves towards supporting farming that is greener, more sustainable and preserves the terroir, it is anybody’s guess where the CAP will be heading in coming years.