John Lichfield: Arguments Britain can win... and those it can't

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The Independent Online

There are many arguments that Tony Blair can win in Europe: a frontal assault on EU agriculture policy is not one of them.

If Mr Blair really wanted to appeal over the heads of other leaders to European electorates for a more flexible, agile and successful EU, he would have chosen a different battleground. Other European governments are convinced that Mr Blair has decided to bash the CAP for domestic reasons, not because this is the true path to a forward-looking 21st-century European Union, as he claims.

Is the CAP as wasteful and archaic as the Blair government says?

The CAP has many faults but the days of food mountains and prices boosted far above world levels have long gone. Farm prices in the EU are now, on average, 30 per cent above the world market, compared to 80 per cent in the 1980s.

The most recent reform of the CAP in 2002 – claimed by Mr Blair's Government as a great British victory – cut the link between subsidy and output. Farmers are now rewarded, in theory, for maintaining food quality and protecting the environment.

Huge "single farm payments" can go to the richest landowners but this is largely the British Government's fault. Britain, which has the biggest farms in the EU, opposed plans to place a limit on what any one farm could receive.

Does the CAP protect food quality and safety, as France claims?

The French press and French politicians have been having fun with this argument in recent days. How can Britain lecture us on agriculture they say, when it was Britain which gave us mad cow disease?

What do the British know about food? asked Le Parisien yesterday, when "les Anglais" were well known for eating their "beef boiled in mint". Without the CAP, France argues, quality food production would be swamped by ranch-farming in Europe and abroad.

In truth, for many years the CAP encouraged mass food production, rather than quality or traditional farming. This is now changing at last – but too late. Small, traditional French farmers have left the land in droves. Thousands of small producers remain in the centre and south of the country but the real agricultural-political-economic power in France lies in the vast chemical-soaked, hedge-free, cereals farms that extend for 100 miles in every direction around Paris.

Why do we need to subsidise farmers at all?

This is not an easy argument to make in Britain. The urban and suburban middle classes love good food and "the countryside" but they assume that food grows in supermarkets and that the Cotswolds were made by God, not by farmers. Do we want to turn the English – and French – countryside into another Nebraska (even more than now in the Ile de France and East Anglia)?

Does the CAP make Third World farmers poor?

The old CAP dumped food abroad and restricted access for produce from "the south." Much has changed. Many African and Caribbean countries depend on their special deals for export to the EU at EU prices. Abolition of the CAP would help Australia and New Zealand and encourage rainforest destruction for beef ranching in Brazil. It would not necessarily help the poorest countries.

Is is not a scandal that 40 per cent of the EU budget goes on farming?

Yes and no. This is the most demagogic part of the Blair argument. The overall EU budget is tiny – 1 per cent of GDP, compared with 40 to 50 per cent of GDP for national budgets. The CAP used to take up 70 per cent of Brussels finances because it was the only large area of public finances transferred to the EU. It is now down to 40 per cent, largely because the EU has expanded its regional, research and transport spending etc. When Mr Blair says the EU is spending more on cows than on education, he is being dishonest. Does he want to transfer national education spending and policy to Brussels? No.

All the same, the long-term future for CAP – and even the French privately agree – is probably a transfer of farm spending back to national budgets, based on common European rules.

Does all the money go to French farmers?

No, but 22 per cent does, because France has a lot of countryside. The CAP is not just important for France. It is also important for Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, Ireland and Poland. Abolition of the CAP is not an argument Mr Blair can win and he knows it. Yesterday in Brussels he spoke only of another "reform" of the CAP, some time after 2010. If that's all he wants, why all the fuss?