Expert View: Feed the rich, starve the poor: that's the CAP lunacy

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The Independent Online

If you need to get from Munich to Zurich, don't drive - the road is indescribable. As I strained to understand German radio's description of how "Mr Blair had just buried the European dream", I had plenty of time to admire the beautiful, manicured Bavarian farmland. Tony Blair's argument was all around me.

It was quite a week for the Prime Minister. Le Monde called him "the strong man of Europe" and, listening to him in the lion's den, addressing the European Parliament, I had to admit it was a tour de force. There are dangers in the Prime Minister's strong-arm tactics. As one French diplomat said: "It is very hard to run a successful presidency right after saying, 'Go screw yourselves'." But the economic case is strong.

Mr Blair is right to ridicule President Chirac's description of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a "modern policy - the key to power". As he wrote in the German newspaper Bild, how can it be sensible that Europe's priority is to support its least profitable industry - one that employs less than 2 per cent of the population and absorbs 40 per cent of the proposed seven-year €1 trillion budget. At a time when the EU is expanding, why should we be transferring money from one set of rich countries (Germany and the UK) to another (for example, France, which gets a quarter of the budget)?

More importantly, Mr Blair rounded on this false priority in the context of globalisation and the rise of Asian markets. Chinese exports to Europe are up 100 per cent in just three years, and India now produces more science graduates than the whole of Europe put together. With 20 million Europeans unemployed and the Lisbon accord on global competitiveness in tatters, it's time, Monsieur Chirac, for a reality check.

Besides, dismantling the CAP is attractive in itself. The range of subsidies is breathtaking. The latest pays £60 to £100 an acre, even for uncultivated but "well-kept" land. Those Bavarian farmers must be happy.

I recently sat by a swimming pool with City folk who, to a man, had bought farm property in the country. They belong to a group of people estate agents call the "lifestyle buyers", who apparently represent 50 per cent of purchasers. But it's more than that. As the guy sitting next to me observed, with all the EU subsidies, the yield on his land "is now nearly 9 per cent, making my bond portfolio look pedestrian". No wonder the price of farmland in south-east England has risen a fifth in the past two years.

Consider the top CAP benefactors - a list forced out by the Freedom of Information Act. Europe's taxpayers are topping up some of their wealthiest fellow citizens. In the UK we have the Duke of Marlborough (£1m), the Duke of Richmond (£900,000) and, most unbelievable of all, the multi-billionaire Duke of Westminster (£800,000). France has yet to disclose its list - I'd like to see it.

Some companies have done even better, led by Tate & Lyle which receives an incredible £120m. This is thanks to the bizarre sugar regime, which is finally being tackled following world pressure. European taxpayers pay to keep prices high - £320 a ton, or five times what it should be.

The tragedy of all this is that while throwing £550m at one group of rich farmers, the CAP imposes 200 per cent tariffs on African exporters. First-World food policy is not just enriching a handful of its own citizens, it is ensuring the Third World starves. The OECD spent $280bn (£155bn) of taxpayers' money doing this last year, with Europe by far the worst offender.

As Mr Blair observed, you and I are paying for French cows at a rate of €2 a day each - more than what most people in Africa live on. Maybe Bob Geldof should hold a concert in Brussels.