Given the stalemate at Stormont it is no surprise that we are in a state of political paralysis – but it has to be a growing cause for concern that agriculture is also facing political paralysis at Westminster.
This is despite DEFRA having a full team of well qualified ministers, and with Brexit creating a blank sheet to develop a new and truly radical UK agricultural policy.
This sheet has been blank for a long time, given that ministers have been in place for almost nine months. Events in Brussels this week confirmed that while the EU is coming up with a new CAP, farmers in the UK are in the dark about what will happen after 2020. Already remote prospects of the Treasury being generous towards farming look even less certain after the budget. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was prepared to break a Conservative party manifesto commitment by raising National Insurance costs for the self employed, which ironically includes most farmers. Against that background it would be a brave minister that would knock at his seeking special funding for agriculture. However knowing it and accepting it are very different. The DEFRA minister, Andrea Leadsom, needs to make clear that after Brexit there will be big savings for the UK, as a net contributor to the CAP, and that some of those funds have to come back to agriculture.
The EU farm council looked this week at the shape the CAP will be after 2020. It is a long way from this to a deal, but at least the process is now moving, while it remains stalled in London. Events in Brussels coincided with a meeting between DEFRA and the Scottish NFU, and it would be an understatement to say the Scottish farm lobby was frustrated by the lack of progress. Brexit is now a fact of life, but even farmers who supported leaving the EU would like to see some action in London. They would probably even like the direction of policy travel in Brussels.
The headline issues in the CAP plans coming out of the Commission are about building resilience, which is risk management and tackling price volatility; research and innovation; environmental challenges; generational change – Commission speak for young farmer initiatives; rural job creation; market orientation to make farming more competitive; and tackling unfairness along the supply chain. These are all issues farmers would like to see on the Leadsom agenda, if she has one which is still very much in doubt.
Discussions in Brussels and the mood music coming out of London suggest we are now going down very different roads. The new CAP will be different, with less reliance on direct payments. However reading between the lines it will still be focussed on maintaining farm incomes. This is one of those points in the Brexit process, when you realise the changes ahead are for real. For better or worse we are now heading off in a different direction to the one that has driven the industry for 40 plus years, and indeed the core member states of the original EEC for close to 60 years.
Regardless of whether you were a leave or remain voter last year, and whether you look at the CAP reform debate wistfully or with relief that we will not be part of it we all now have to find ways to make Brexit work. It is the only show in town, but the list of areas where farming needs answers is depressingly long. This is not only about support structures, although it would be good to have a list of policy priorities. Those debated this week in Brussels ran to only three pages, so that should not be hard to deliver at DEFRA.
That in many ways sums up the difference between Andrea Leadsom and the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan It all comes down to vision. We know with Phil Hogan that he wants a better, more stable livelihood for farmers, based around a new CAP. But despite being in the job for nine months Mrs Leadsom is still an unknown when it comes to farming. The industry has been patient, but it should use what is happening in Brussels on CAP reform to stress that it has been patient long enough, and wants to see evidence of a plan. If this does not happen, even farmers enthusiastic about Brexit will increasingly look to Brussels with some envy.