After a particularly long winter the bank holiday sunshine was especially welcome this year. The good weather has provided relief for farmers too as we see their hard work around us, with fields bursting into life and lambs gambolling about. What we don’t see is the paperwork farmers are also busy completing this spring in order to apply for the payments they are due under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) programme.
It has proved a busy time for our European Commission colleagues too as last week the European Union budget for the 2021-2027 period was proposed. It was presented under the not-so-catchy catchphrase of “a pragmatic and long-term budget for a Union that protects, empowers and defends”. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called it an opportunity to shape “our future as a new, ambitious Union of 27 bound together by solidarity”. All clear signs that the member states are now working towards a future that doesn’t include Brexit Britain.
Due to our decision – as a net contributor to this budget - to leave the EU, this period’s financial framework comes with an expected cut which will arguably affect the farming community more than any other. The CAP has one of the largest shares of the EU budget – sitting at just over €408bn for all current member states. But in last week’s budget proposal, the EU Commission announced a reduction of roughly 5% to the CAP, which brings it down to circa €365bn for the remaining 27 member states. It will continue to be built around two pillars: direct payments to farmers and rural development funding.
What does this mean for our farmers here in the North East? Michael Gove, the new environment secretary, promised farmers payments for “public goods” after Brexit and guaranteed that these subsidies will be calculated at current EU level until the 2022 election. What Mr Gove failed to mention was the looming EU budget cut which the UK government would have to replicate in our country.
In the current financial climate it seems inconceivable that the government would subsidise UK agriculture to a greater degree than farmers in the EU will be subsidised. Our NHS is crippled by lack of funding; our schools – especially those in the North East – have been dealing with a huge budget crisis, our mental health and wellbeing services are on the brink of collapsing… the list goes on. What is clear is that there are many other important areas of public service that require the government’s immediate attention, and increasing subsidies for farmers could very easily be put on the back-burner.
In order to help ensure a market of tens of billions of pounds a year to British farming and food production, as well as secure millions of jobs, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) recently suggested that food procured for Britain’s public sector after Brexit should be sourced from the UK wherever possible. However, such proposals have been rejected by Whitehall in the past as being incompatible with EU rules that require member states to treat each other equally in public procurement. Which leads me to another point.
Even if by some miracle the UK government funded our farming community at a higher level after the Brexit transition period, this would be seen by EU farmers as unfair competition and not a level playing field. As a result, UK farm produce would likely be denied access to our largest market – the EU.
For many years the government, and many high profile Brexiteers, have argued that EU farm policy is wasteful and bad for the environment, and blamed the CAP for birds being driven out of the countryside, soil erosion and loss of woodlands and wildflower meadows. Brexit is their opportunity to change farming policy, but what we have heard so far doesn’t stray away too much from the status quo. With budget cuts now closer to becoming a reality, our farmers need to make concrete plans based on what their income is likely to be.
Failing to be honest about this on the part of the government risks our farms, food and much loved landscape. As with many Brexit related issues this may yet be another case of having the wool pulled over our eyes.