Great Repeal gets underway

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The Great Repeal Bill, published this week at Westminster, will bring all EU regulations into British law.

Over time the government can then decide which regulations it wants to keep or change. Part of this process will be to bring all EU agricultural legislation into UK law, although given that the present CAP will lapse in 2020, a year after Brexit, it is not clear which aspects of CAP regulations will be made UK law.

The Bill is described as one of the most ambitious ever to come before the parliament at Westminster. In response, DEFRA said its aim was to have a major consultation with farmers in the autumn about the future shape of agricultural support. It is tempting to suggest this will mean that by the time this happens 15 or 16 months, from when the Brexit vote happened, will have been wasted. The aim, according to DEFRA, is to publish final plans in 2018 about the policies the government wants for UK agriculture. Time will tell whether that proves possible. The government always has the fallback of the default position being EU law if no decisions are made. Equally if there is no deal on trade the default fallback is World Trade Organisation tariff rules, which would effectively stop agricultural trade with the EU 27, and indeed between the EU 27 and the UK.

In its approach the government could learn from the tactics adopted by the European Commission. It recently held a major conference on the future shape of the CAP. Before the Brexit decision this would have been a must attend event for UK farm lobby organisations. Instead it was another reminder of the fact that we are now on a different track to the future than farmers elsewhere in Europe. That said, what was interesting was the title of the conference. This was ‘Have your Say’ about the future shape of agricultural policy and support. It did not just attract farmers, but was a good forum to bring all sides in the debate together, and for the Commission to give pointers about how it sees the future. It has to live with the reality of a reduced budget and with competing pressures from farmers and the environmental lobby about what the CAP should deliver.

The fact that an event like this took place should leave us envious. The sense remains that Westminster has no real ideas about the direction in which to take the industry. This is a far cry from how easy the Leave advocates suggested it would be, when they said we would walk away from the red tape of the CAP to a policy tailored to UK farming. That now seems as distant a prospect as the promise of an extra £350 million a week for the Health Service. There are plenty of ideas in the farming and environmental lobby about what would deliver a better future. The government at Westminster should emulate the European Commission by accepting that the debate cannot be a closed shop based around politicians and civil servants in London thinking they know what is best for agriculture and the countryside.

The Commission put up some arguments for technology. It suggested there was a growing gap between farmers who make good use of technology and those who do not. Some will see that as ironic, given that a lack of commitment to technology partly reflects the fact that the CAP helps maintain uneconomic farms by not forcing them to merge or embrace fresh thinking to become more efficient. The Commission also claimed that the tension between agricultural productivity and environmental concerns was a thing of the past. If it really believes that is true, when it comes to the CAP and to the relationship between farmers and green groups, it is deluding itself about the real situation.

Away from those comments by the Commission good points were raised at the event. One in particular should be noted and banked by farmers when it comes to making the case for support in the UK. In a presentation the agricultural economics professor from Trinity College in Dublin, Alan Matthews, highlighted the positive link between CAP payments and economic growth. This, he said, was even more apparent in areas of economic disadvantage where there were limited alternative opportunities. This is an argument farmers need to make to policy makers – that funds for farm support are an investment in the wider economy and not just a subsidy.