Back in June 2016, when the Ulster Farmers’ Union had the big debate before the EU referendum, I said to one farmer set to vote leave that I had been surprised at the outcome.
He told me the 70 per cent plus in favour of Brexit came as no surprise, because of the desire amongst farmers to escape the frustration of red tape from Brussels. That was understandable, and one of those pursuing the farmer vote – Owen Paterson – certainly made a UK policy sound attractive. His vision was for a globally competitive British farming industry, with a light touch to regulation. However as we get closer to Brexit there are growing signs that far from escaping red tape, the industry will swap EU red tape for home-produced British red tape.
Over the years one frequent criticism of UK officials has been that they gold-plate EU regulations. Red tape is what they do best. We have prime examples here with many parts of the CAP, and more recently in the business improvement and agri-environment schemes. The concept of a gentle touch to regulation does not seem to be within the grasp of UK civil servants. Elsewhere the approach is more about being seen to implement legislation without worrying too much about the risk of being pulled up by Brussels. This has always been a UK problem. Indeed that excessive zeal over regulation is probably one reason why farmers ended up disenchanted with the EU and voted to leave. In reality the source of their frustration may well be closer to home.
Be that as it may, we are on our way to Brexit, and in the past week the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, has confirmed how little some things will change. He confirmed that after Brexit the UK would continue to ban neonicotinoids, in line with EU regulations. This was despite the UK voting against a blanket ban in 2013, because it would force farmers to use other products that might cause greater damage to other wildlife, while protecting bees. That may or may not be a good decision, but it was surprising the see the left-leaning UK newspapers singling Gove out as a ‘timid green turned full-throated environmentalist’. This was because he confirmed there would be a new stand-alone environmental agency in the UK to deliver a green Brexit.
For Gove this makes political sense. Green policies go down well with the general public, and the number of people that are members of environmental organisations, such as RSPB and WWF, massively outstrip the number of farmers, let alone those that are members of farm lobby organisations. The Conservative party has long ago given up any pretence of being a party that represents farming or even rural interests. It is now as urban as Labour, with not much more sympathy for farmers. If a green Brexit is what it will take to satisfy voters, then a green Brexit is what we will get. The Gove thinking on this is clear. A new environment agency delivering the same policies as the EU is his big Brexit idea, and everything else will flow from that.
Farmers that voted to leave the EU did so because they were willing to give up direct payments for less regulation. Now it seems they will get the same or perhaps even tougher green regulations, with no certainty about support payments. To be fair, Gove has said the policy will be driven by science, but it is all too easy to see that slipping off the agenda. This and other moves to bring EU regulations into UK law – and that is a process still in its infancy – will have many people, for and against Brexit, asking what is now the point of leaving the EU to have more of the same. There is a real danger of having the bad parts of the EU without the good parts.
Where Gove has gone wrong is in failing to deliver a joined up plan. For all its faults the CAP achieved that, in that it joins up farm support, rural development, the environment and increasingly now food promotion. That is what Gove should be delivering if he wants to be the architect of a truly radical UK farming policy. Instead he has sought the political capital that comes from promising a green Brexit. This is akin to a jigsaw with major pieces missing, since farmers are the only people that can deliver a truly green Brexit.