When it comes to European politics the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, has been wise enough to date to keep out of mainstream politics. However given the importance of the Irish border to the Brexit debate he has been drawn into it and in doing so he picked on Boris Johnson. He was responding to the comments about Brexit saving the UK £350 million a week – a claim discredited a long time ago. Hogan has suggested the Foreign Secretary is ‘out of the loop’ and a diminished figure in the British government.
That is clearly not the case, and it reflects a mindset in Brussels that there is a lack of determination at Westminster to deliver on Brexit. There are many problems with it, but Brussels needs to accept it is happening. It needs to focus on a deal that will maintain good relations, including trade, between the UK and the EU-27. The present approach is the exact opposite, based as it is on rancour and unreasonable demands on both sides.
This will have to change, because both sides need a deal – but it is taking a long time for that penny to drop. What is clear is that the divisive speech by the Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, convinced many remain voters that Brexit is now inevitable. It would make more sense for Hogan to be a peacemaker rather than to add fuel to the fire. This is particularly true, given the importance of the UK food market to agriculture in the EU 27. As farm commissioner he must know that. He also knows that a sensible border deal is the key to maintaining Ireland’s access to the UK market.
It is easy to dismiss Boris Johnson as a bit madcap but he has sound political instincts. I remember him well when he was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels. As a writer he was enviably good. He was always good company and thought provoking, and while his claim about the £350 million was wrong, it was one suggestion in a long article. His central point was that we need to take a more positive view of Brexit – to focus on the opportunities rather than the threats. It is easy to say this, but the threats are real and the way ahead far from clear. However his argument is that if we fail to focus on what Brexit could deliver the problems will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It would be good if someone would set out an equally positive vision for agriculture after Brexit. We know the majority of farmers voted for Brexit, but those that did so to escape Brussels red tape must be disappointed that a year on we have no vision of the future for farming. Everything is up in the air, from support to trade, and that is not healthy for a long term industry like agriculture. The DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove – like Boris Johnson a former journalist – could take on the challenge of setting out how Brexit could put clear blue water between agriculture in the UK and EU-27. He could base this on an industry that embraces science and technology. It did this for decades before this became lost through EU membership.
Gove could highlight the Jonathan Swift claim about the person making two blades of grass grow where one grew before being more deserving of the praise of mankind than politicians. This is still relevant, even if it has been ignored by today’s green vote chasing politicians. What we need is a commitment to a productive, profitable agriculture, embracing science and technology to deliver quality food with real provenance, while protecting the environment. Gove could even point out that farmers are more in tune with the environment, because they have to be to run their businesses, than green armchair warriors in urban areas and at Westminster.
We need to have a vision for the future of farming after Brexit. If we see it solely in terms of lost support and lost export markets in the EU-27 then that is exactly what will happen. We need to be radical, because Brexit by definition is a radical change from the comfort zone we have been in for 44 years. Only by having strong ideas and opinions to pursue, will we get an outcome that could make the opportunities of Brexit counter the threats.