Saturday, 20 August 2016

Agriculture: no quick fixes

Of all the different strands of concerns that must be brought under the microscope in the Brexit process, I think agriculture is one of the most daunting. It's one of those subjects that should be interesting but is made eyewateringly tedious by way of the myriad of subsidies, quotas and tariffs - and by contrast makes the rest of the Brexit negotiations look like a walk in the park.

Hardline Brexiteers would like nothing more than to axe the Common Agricultural Policy and instead operate a temporary subsidy system with a view to phasing out all subsidies and leaving farmers to fend for themselves. It satisfies the ideological impulses of free marketeers while at the same time simplifying the complex.

But as we have seen time and again there is very often no simplification to be had and attempting to do so is to misrepresent the issues. This is the profound dishonesty of Tory Brexiteers throughout - the persistent pretence that the complex is needlessly complex and can be rapidly replaced with something far simpler.

Admittedly there are some legacy measures within the sector that exist because hitherto now it has been politically impossible to challenge them but some mechanisms exist for a very good reason and the reason bad systems stay in place is because the alternatives are worse. Agricultural subsidies the likes of what we have now have evolved over forty years to the satisfaction of nobody but all would complain were the system to be abolished.

And though we could unilaterally end our subsidy system we would at the stroke of a pen ensure that domestic producers could not compete because nobody else is going to drop their subsidies and we lack the necessary tools and the leverage to protect our own industries.

But then we must also consider that agriculture is a wholly different kind of market. In most respects free marketeers have got it into their heads that protectionism is baaaad. Except that agriculture is a strategic national asset, food security is always a reserved concern and agriculture is deeply intertwined with rural policy that links in with wildlife policy and flood management along with tourism and the likes. Though Brexit presents an opportunity to integrate such policymaking we first have to examine how we disentangle ourselves without collapsing the sector and be able to meet our own strategic objectives.

You can't actually do that until you first know what your strategic objectives are. And for that you need a food and rural policy and if there is one thing we have proved it is that we do not do joined up thinking and that we do not do strategic thinking. Since there is no vision nor leadership from the government, or Brexiteers for that matter, we're better off looking for a continuity settlement.

Some on the Tory right propose that we pull out of the single market and end all subsidies in favour of competing globally but this overlooks the fact that agriculture the world over is subject to very similar rules and other nations have their own impenetrable systems of protections and reservations and are not going to drop them on the say so of the United Kingdom. Only the Legatum Institute has floated this as feasible but that's because they are telling Brexiteers what they want to hear and they smell consultancy fees. The likes of Andrea Leadsom are just gullible enough to fall for it.

The fact is that there is a thick tapestry of rules and regulations and subsidy systems whereby if you pull at one loose thread you soon start to wish you hadn't. In this the politics then starts to obscure the truth. The remain camp will add complexity that does not exist while the leave camp will oversimplify to the point of credulousness.

My view is that agriculture is a mess all of its own and for the purposes of Brexit we should move for a long transitional agreement that maintains the CAP for a period of at least ten years in order to defer the issue. Brexit is enough of a headache without adding to it a complex set of negotiations that could very well stall the entire process. In order to keep the process of establishing ourselves independently at the WTO we will have to keep all of our subsidy schedules in tact in order to avoid conflicts in the aftermath of Brexit. What we definitely don't want to do us open up a number of avoidable conflicts where there are opportunities to derail the process. We must pick our battles carefully.

This of course means that Brexit will not look radically different from the status quo which Mrs May will have a hard time selling but really the fault lies with Brexiteers who failed to plan and offered nothing but flim-flam in place of policy. The advantage to this approach means that uncertainty is reduced but it means there will be no immediate policy gains for agriculture.

The question this then raises is that if we are maintaining the CAP for an interim period, supposing we do elect to leave the single market, how much of the single market can we actually dispense with? The answer, I imagine, is not very much. We will have to do as the Australians have done and invoke a unilateral declaration of conformity and adhere to all of the global and regional standards. We then secure a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment and then there is no disruption to trade in goods. That means that though we have left the single market in principle, in practice we haven't.

The short of it is that if anyone was expecting a buccaneering free trade approach to food in a post-Brexit world they need to think again. Nor is there are real departure from the EU regulatory regime because it stems from the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation and Codex. We will gain some flexibility in policy making but only after an intense national debate to overcome the political difficulties in deviating from existing policy. There are already moves afoot in the form of private members bills to ensure we keep various environmental protections in place. There is enough traction in the country to ensure they stay in place.

I now take the view that it will take many years for the political machine to wake up to what Brexit could do for agriculture and later down the line we will see Brexit scale negotiations with the EU about reforming and possibly abolishing the CAP but I don't see that happening until we have a coherent idea of what we replace it with. That will require a level of engagement that the current crop of politicians is manifestly incapable of and only when we have restored a degree of institutional expertise can we make any radical moves.It doesn;t help that the government is deaf to new ideas.

But then at least we will be building up institutional expertise on trade and agriculture. This is something that as long since atrophied to our eternal shame. After twenty years of unreformable policy we will finally be able to address something we have entirely neglected and we can start to debate what role we see for agriculture as we move out of the gravitational pull of the EU. It won't happen soon, but the possibilities are endless. The world has changed a great deal since the inception of the CAP. Governance of agriculture is increasingly global. That presents new challenges and new opportunities. Telling them apart will be half the problem. Collectively it is an issue we haven't begun to understand.

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