Leading Article: Europe's lost chance to sow the seeds of change

Europe has had more than 30 years to wind down its scheme for over-producing overpriced food but yesterday it once again funked the fundamental reforms that are required. Let's rephrase that: what the Common Agricultural Policy needs is not reform but abolition. Here, this week, with the publication of a plan for negotiations for new entrants to the club, was a golden opportunity to confront the farmers of Franche-Comte and their British and German kin with a reality that has been visited sharply upon their steel-making and coal-hewing compatriots - the reality of adaptation to changing market circumstances. It has been thrown away.

But surely only temporarily. The idea that Polish ploughmen or Cypriot wine-growers are going to be inaugurated into a regime of subsidy that national taxpayers and Sainsbury's shoppers will put up with paying for is untenable. Sooner or later the European Commission is going to have to produce a document that should have seen the light of day a generation ago - a plan for eliminating intervention in agricultural markets altogether in order to allow European food prices to drop to world market levels. Until that day every European discussion should note that the completion of the single market, common currency, harmonisation of trading standards - all the objectives of economic union - are stained and compromised by the preservation of agricultural price distortion.

Note straightaway that urging the abolition of the CAP is not at all the same as saying there should be no government help for rural communities or public money allocated to preserve landscapes or policies to promote diversified land use. On the contrary, one of the most serious charges that can be made against the CAP is that its "social" justification, that it preserves a valuable form of life in rural areas, does not hold: rural depopulation has accompanied the most effulgent flow of subsidy money into farmers' pockets. As for the CAP as a tool of environmental protection, that is risible. It is a scheme for subsidising over-production and, in certain areas, that has meant the ruthless exploitation of land for a single crop. Recent efforts to buy out land and turn it into forest, for example, have had limited success; and besides, if the expansion of woodland is a policy objective (as well it might be) it should be done directly rather than as an expensive by-product.

Many further arguments could be mustered against the CAP. Let's plump for two. The first is that it constitutes a monstrous unfairness between producer groups. Shipbuilders, coalminers and metal-bashers have all had to take on the chin the effects of open markets. Even in Germany where the old industries of the Ruhr and the Saar have long exercised a hold on the political imaginations of Bonn politicians, subsidies have been cut and capacity reduced. The end of coal subsidies is now in sight, despite those recent - and politically effective - demonstrations in the German capital. Aren't the coal communities of Yorkshire or the Lorraine as deserving as the villages of Cambridgeshire or the Chalonnais? French nationalism, for ever looking back to the glory days, might once, perhaps, have made a case for protecting the way of life of la France profonde. The nature of post-war German politics, especially the need for the Christian right to keep the Bavarians sweet, explains the adherence of Germany to the original CAP terms. But what looked plausible in the Fifties when the Treaty of Rome was composed makes no sense in the days of the Treaty of Maastricht, let alone Amsterdam. The play of interests inside our own party politics is not so remote from the French, even though we like to sneer at the way in which French urbanites airily defend the indefensible for the sake of some rural essence. In spite of our recent change of government, it is still possible to detect beneath the surface the urban politicians' discomfort with confronting the transformation of the economics of the countryside. It is not hard to fathom why Tory Euro-sceptics often proved remarkably credulous when it came to the subject of agricultural subsidy.

Of course the CAP has "worked" in the sense that it has buoyed farming incomes. But it is plain wrong to extrapolate the fact of excess farming income into the preservation of some valued way of life. The most casual traveller through rural France or Germany (for the purposes of the abolition argument, it is these countries alone which really count) can see that rural employment has less and less connection with agriculture. Village communities enjoy very mixed fortunes, some rising on the back of commuters who spend their urban earnings locally, and new patterns of economic activity which have very little to do with the land, and a lot to do with the kind of people who want to live in the country.

As for the other arguments, all have fallen by the wayside. Countries do not need to protect an indigenous agriculture industry for "security" reasons: we all depend on imports for critical technologies, including agricultural ones. The fact that the Americans feather-bed their own farming industry even more luxuriously than Europeans is relevant only in giving EU negotiators a strong card to play in the World Trade Organisation.

The CAP is a tax on consumers for the sake, not of agricultural labourers, nor hedgerows or ponds, but for the short-sighted benefit of a select few farming pockets. British, French and German agriculture would not disappear if farmers had to compete on world markets. Their numbers might fall, but their use of land would become more practical, and less destructive. And we would all be a lot better off.