Commission shows it hasn’t changed its ways

Fudge
Fudge

Back when now Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Brussels he often asked if we could smell the fudge as ministers and the European Commission, in his words, cooked up another dodgy deal. He has not changed his views, and it seems the Commission has not altered its taste for fudging decisions.

This works in the short term. But, as we all know, enjoying fudge now has potential long term consequences in the shape of obesity and diabetes – and the same negatives apply in agriculture.

The latest fudge is over glyphosate (Roundup), with the European Commission set to cave in to pressure from some member states and the European parliament. This will be another attack on science-based decision making, and it will take European farming another step away from being a globally competitive industry.

In the face of a struggle to secure support for a ten-year relicensing the Commission is set to reduce this to five. This would be on top of an existing climb-down from the normal 15-year renewal. There is no reason for this on the basis of science. It is gesture politics, which help no-one. If this happens it will be interesting to see whether Brussels faces a legal challenge for its unscientific decision making process.

If a five-year extension from 15 December is the outcome this will raise an interesting post-Brexit scenario. It would mean that very soon after the transitional period, suggested by Theresa May, the UK will have to confront this issue. That would be a big test of whether Brexit really will make any difference. If it does, the UK can make its own decision, based on best science, and ignore what is happening in what will then be the ERU-27. That is what many farmers who voted for Brexit wanted. They believed the EU held back the industry, with its regulations and rigid, often politically driven, environmental rules. However all along their hope for something different and better was always at risk of ending up a triumph for hope over expectation.

There is already pressure for the UK, so far as environmental regulations are concerned, to adopt the approach of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) countries. They effectively implement whatever regulations are in force in the EU. This is a part of the deal that allows them access to the EU market under a customs union deal. However the government has said it does not want to be part of a customs union or to follow the EFTA arrangements. If, despite that, it accepts parallel environmental regulations people will rightly ask what was the point of leaving the EU to have the same rules, but without the power to influence them.

If the Commission cuts the licensing period it will have blinked in the argument that science should be the basis for decisions. It is then on a slippery slope to further pressure for bans on agrochemicals which are essential in agriculture, but disliked by an increasingly powerful green lobby. This is the price the Commission will pay for failing to stand up for science over glyphosate. Its fudge, like all sweet things, will give a short term boost. But like any sugary comfort food it will be a concession with bad long term consequences for agriculture.

With Belfast the venue for the World Dairy Summit this week the heavy hitters of the global industry were in town. The event brought a warning from the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, that farmers should not be lulled by present good prices into increasing milk production. His concern about the stability of the recovery is rooted in the close to 400,000 tonnes of skim milk powder the Commission has in store from the dairy crisis.

It has not been possible to sell this without undermining the market. That task is being made even more difficult because the price of SMP is falling and out of balance with butter and cheese prices. This is a big problem for the Commission and Hogan has confirmed that from 2018 he wants to set the intervention ceiling for SMP at zero. There would then be a tender process as part of market support, rather than the current automatic intervention up to a relatively high ceiling. This could be the hangover from the pleasure of better milk prices, in that when the downturn comes this will leave farmers more exposed to market realities.