The food and farming sector is important to the UK economy, with the whole food chain contributing £85 billion per year to the economy and 3.5 million jobs. In policy terms, it is dominated by the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), so its treatment will be an important illustration of how policy in a post-EU world will be handled.
Because the continued export of UK agricultural products to the EU will require a high degree of alignment of EU regulation, and farmers will be looking for continued public support, it is most likely that stability rather than reform might be the immediate priority.
To secure this, the UK might shadow EU policy until the industry is prepared for and could cope with a degree of measured change. Even then, divergence would need to be carefully gauged. As long as the EU remains an important trading partner, we will need to keep equivalence with EU rules. Creating unfair trading advantages within the overall system would prejudice market access.
Given that the current CAP, after successive “reforms” is substantially different from the original policy, there are substantial areas of EU policy which the UK government could support. They include focusing on the EU policy objective of attaining “higher levels of production of safe and quality food, while preserving the natural resources that agricultural productivity depends upon”.
What is helpful here is that CAP expenditure for 2014-2020 is frozen at the levels set in 2013 which, in real terms, means that funding will decrease. This is a policy that the UK would have no difficulty shadowing. It would also allow us to focus on reducing some of the overly bureaucratic aspects of the policy.
In seeking to shadow EU policy, one problem that will emerge is that the EU policy itself is constantly changing. Maintaining regulatory convergence will become an ongoing process, and the UK will have to liaise closely with the EU on long-term planning. Autonomy will be restricted if trade is to continue uninterrupted.
These constraints may prove unacceptable in the long-term, or they may be seen as the necessary price of access to the Single Market. Whether to accept them will be a political decision for the future, after the UK has completed the leaving formalities and the system has been allowed to settle down.
It will always be open for the UK to stop shadowing EU policy, or any parts of it. This will apply if new markets can be found for some products, or if export trade is insignificant.
There is also scope for independent action in rural development. Initially, the UK might run its rural policy in parallel with the EU, with no significant differences. Eventually, however, non-agricultural demands might increasingly dictate policy, setting what is known as a “multifunctionality” agenda.
The term “multifunctionality” describes a policy that deals with more than just the strict needs of agriculture. It recognises that rural areas do more than just grow things. The environment, cultural landscape, land conservation, flood control, biodiversity, recreation, cultural heritage and the promotion of small business all come within the ambit of rural policy.
Looking to the longer-term, the best and most persuasive argument against continuing the CAP is the very concept of a common policy stretching from the tundra of northern Finland to the arid hills of Athens, and all points in between. The very idea is absurd.
What applies to Europe though, also applies to the United Kingdom. There may not be the same extremes, but there are huge differences between the dairy country of Cornwall and Devon, the green hills of Wales, the arable plains of East Anglia, the lush Vale of York, the barren but beautiful hills of the Pennines and Cumbria, and the extraordinarily diverse Scotland.
Freedom from the constraints of the EU could eventually allow for a fundamental rethink of how we manage (and regulate) agriculture.
Eventually, policy might be devolved to regional and even county level, where it can be tailored to the specific conditions on the ground. There would then be not one policy, but many. National administrations would limit themselves to providing oversight, strategic direction, and dealing with external trade and international relations.
This article was originally published by the author 25 March 2016 http://thescepticisle.com/2016/03/25/restoring-independent-policies-agriculture/