Farming is a roller coaster of good and bad, and when things are frustrating that is often down to weather.
Frustration comes from that being something over which farmers have no control, as frustrated arable farmers took to Facebook last weekend to point out, as heavy showers put paid to their best laid plans. However politics can be even more frustrating. We know weather will pass, but politicians stay around a lot longer.
One challenge with politicians is to get straight talking from them – to understand what they really think, as opposed to what they say to curry favour with a particular audience. When the new DEFRA minister, Michael Gove, was here people seemed impressed with his vision for the future of farm support. Other farm lobby organisations in Great Britain have said the same. However the next day he underlined his green credentials with plans to ban petrol and diesel cars after 2040. It is hard not to believe we are being softened up for a big surge in diesel tax this autumn, under the guise of helping the environment, but in reality just another way to squeeze more tax from us.
Gove has yet to prove to farmers that they can trust him. They want to, but are naturally suspicious of all politicians. A senior adviser to Gove, the economist Dieter Helm, made headlines this week when he claimed farmers were addicted to subsidies. He also called for the scrapping of agricultural property relief against inheritance tax, on grounds that this represented unfair treatment for farmers. Gove needs to make clear who is calling the shots on agriculture. He needs to show that he understands the industry, and the reasons for agricultural property relief and farm support. If he fails to do so his advisers and other hard Brexit advocates within the Tory party will increasingly call the shots.
August is when work comes to a halt in Brussels until September, with problems are brushed under the carpet until then. The elephant in the room this year is Brexit, and there is a big change of mood compared to this time last year. Then the referendum result was still something of a surprise, and Brexit seemed a distant prospect. Now most in the EU-27 just want the UK issue sorted so they can focus on things they view as more important to their national interests. The UK is no longer part of any discussions about the future. It has, in the eyes of most in the EU-27, become a one issue member state – a bit like a family member that has made a decision with which everyone else disagrees, but which they know they are not going to change.
The normally diplomatic farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, has even criticised the UK over Brexit. Speaking in Dublin, he described the lack of coordination and inconsistency as beyond belief. As an Irish politician his concern is how London can deliver on its commitment not to have a hard border in Ireland, while many Conservatives still want a hard Brexit without a trade deal in place. The UK is no longer part of the EU’s agricultural debate. But a policy of distancing itself is not building the relationships that are key to making sure its farm products will still be sold in the EU-27. Goodwill is the key to a Brexit that works, but it is not there.
This week marked the final date for EU-27 countries to apply to be the location for EU agencies now based in the UK, which will have to move after Brexit. Dublin is high on the list. A bigger question is what will happen in Britain about what these bodies do. The UK will either have to pay into these as part of its ‘divorce’ settlement from Brussels or create new structures of its own. These range from food promotion, through the veterinary directorate to the European Food Safety Authority and the mechanism for altering countries to food health scares. The UK cannot afford to be out of this loop, but as of now it does not seem to have firm plans about how to remain in it. There can be no excuses for an ill thought out Brexit plan.
The EU-27 know the direction for the CAP and are fully committed to global free trade deals, where they are having significant gains. Each success they make adds to the challenge of delivering an effective Brexit.