Leaving the EU – the nightmare facing Welsh agriculture

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The new EU Agriculture Commissioner visited the Royal Welsh Show on Monday. Later in the week the UK Prime Minister will visit the Showground. It’s a shame that they didn’t meet.

The Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is a former Irish Environment Minister who found the reform of local government there every bit as difficult as our own Leighton Andrews is finding here. He is the first Irish Agriculture Commissioner since Ray MacSharry whose name is still quoted in certain circles as the man who finally managed to set CAP on the road to reform. It was his 1992 agreement which, although a compromise, is widely seen as the beginning of a process that saw a move away from guaranteed high prices to a system of direct income support which is more easily managed by governments. A double-edged sword maybe, but without that fundamental change it is difficult to see how the CAP could have survived in any form at all.

So now all eyes are on Phil Hogan. And expectations are high. And for those of us who favour further reform he has made a good start.

He was very clear earlier this month that he would not intervene in the dairy sector, telling an unhappy Council of Ministers that the industry will need to recognise market signals and respond to market pressures. His good friend, and former Council President, the popular Irish Minister, Simon Coveney, must have been disappointed. Hogan has shown every intention of pursuing a reformist agenda and one which will reflect the wider political, financial and economic priorities of President Juncker’s Commission.

And this is important. CAP is one area of policy that is quoted by both those people who wish to leave the EU and those of us who wish to remain in the EU as justification for their position. It will be a central part of our political debate over the coming years and the positions adopted by Hogan and the Commission will influence that debate. Many farmers will be disappointed or will disagree with the way that CAP is being implemented in their country and certainly many people disagreed with my decisions as minister but I can think of no farmer who believes that they themselves, or the industry as a whole, would be better off outside the European Union.

The Welsh Minister, Rebecca Evans, is absolutely right to focus on the importance of the EU to Welsh agriculture and to rural Wales during the Commissioner’s visit. The simple fact is that without CAP and without the payment system that it brings with it, Welsh agriculture and the rural economy would collapse tomorrow. Taken together CAP funds provide over £250m to invest in individual farm businesses and the wider agricultural economy every year. But it does far more than that. In terms of welfare and husbandry standards it provides a quality standard that is recognised across the world. It also provides access to a structured and regulated market which underpins consumer confidence and despite current difficulties it is essential to the future success of the industry.

And if we were not in the EU we would still need to maintain these minimum standards and meet these demands. We would still have to fill in the forms – the red tape wouldn’t disappear but the funding that CAP also delivers would disappear. And we would also have to comply without any influence at all over the rules and how they are agreed. In short it would be the worst of all worlds. This is also where the debate on EU membership becomes entirely disingenuous.

The Tory/UKIP argument that either the UK or Welsh Governments would introduce a system of domestic subsidies is fanciful at best. Which party would prioritise direct funding for farmers over the NHS or over schools or over new roads or railways? And if they did so then how would they win an election? I actually believe in the importance of these funding streams. I argued for the maintenance of direct support for farmers whilst listening to UK Tory ministers arguing for the immediate abolition of CAP direct payments. But I’m not sure that I could go to the voters of Blaenau Gwent and argue for those payments rather than funding our local NHS. And I can’t think of many politicians in any party who think differently – whatever they may say in Llanelwedd.

And despite all the criticisms made of CAP, there is one aspect of it that is inescapable. It works.

I well remember the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, happily launching the UK Government’s Balance of Competences exercise which would examine all aspects of the Uk’s relationship with the EU. This, he told a hushed and expectant meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, would dominate the 2015 General Election. It would frame and shape the manifestoes of all the political parties, it would enable us to make judgements based on a hard-headed analysis of the pros and cons of EU membership. He could barely contain his excitement. Unhappily for the Tories and UKIP this hard-headed analysis demonstrated that, on balance, EU competence over agriculture made sense and was beneficial for Welsh farmers. It proposed no change to the status quo.

In fact the whole exercise was a disaster for those who expected it to make the case for a UK exit. A whole new department was created in the Foreign Office where their greatest minds were set to work on this career-defining work. And page after page and chapter after chapter it finds that the current balance of competences between the EU and member states broadly makes sense. It should therefore be a surprise to no-one that Hague’s great bright hopes for the exercise turned to dust. Today, only three years after it was launched, no-one remembers the exercise. And it certainly did not dominate the general election, inform our judgements or influence our manifestoes. It’s been so deeply buried that it’s even difficult to find on Google. A lesson learnt.

Cameron’s policy of seeking a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is potentially the most destructive threat facing Welsh agriculture today. Many on the Conservative benches in Cardiff Bay criticised me for my decision to transfer 15% of the subsidies paid to farmers to another budget to support not only agriculture but the wider rural economy. But their own Prime Minister doesn’t simply  appear to care little for this 15% but wishes to abandon the other 85% as well.

It is first time that I can remember any UK Government actively pursuing a policy that is so detrimental to Welsh national interests. I know that Rebecca Evans will be making the case for Welsh and UK membership of the EU and I trust that everyone who wishes to see Welsh agriculture grow and flourish will join her in doing so.

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