The farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, has been despatched to the regions of the UK in an attempt to persuade farmers to vote to remain in the EU. This is no mean task, given that polls are showing farmer opinion is at best 50:50. Indeed, it seems to be moving towards Brexit, perhaps because May brought the annual ritual of Single Payment forms.
Winning farmers’ hearts and minds is a task to which Mr Hogan is well suited. He has the genial ease of someone who cut his political teeth in Ireland. A bonus is that he can relate to farmers, having grown up on a family dairy farm and been actively involved with the young farmers movement in Ireland. He was well briefed not to take on the opposition and stuck to his line that the CAP delivers certainty, and that there’s enough uncertainty in markets without creating more for farmers by leaving the EU.
Mr Hogan’s core argument was that the CAP, with all its faults, underpins not only agriculture but food production across the EU as the second biggest source of EU employment. Take away the wider politics of issues such as sovereignty and migration and for him it came down to a simple choice for farmers. He challenged them to decide how they thought farming would fare for support from a Treasury in London committed to reducing spending, which had to live with sectors such as health, education, defence and overseas aid being ring-fenced from cuts. He underlined, time and time again, that funding through the CAP for farmers is legally guaranteed by EU treaties, right back to the initial Treaty of Rome. For Mr Hogan the alternative was to gamble on the generosity of the UK Treasury.
There’s no doubt he’s on top of his brief for these events, both politically and on the CAP. Asked about the voluntary milk supply reduction programme, he made it clear no funding would be available, unless it came from member states. With the nail put in the coffin of that scheme, he suggested his approach would be to continue increasing intervention to ease market pressure, but that can only stop things getting worse rather than cure the problems.
One aspect of farm lobbying that has worked is over the threat to the beef industry from the planned trade agreement with the Mercosur countries of South America. There have been concerns over its impact on the beef industry, not helped by the suggestion that Brussels was poised to offer tariff-free access for almost 80,000 tonnes of beef. This has now been dropped from the initial EU offer – a sensible decision for which Mr Hogan deserves credit. But this doesn’t mean the threat’s gone away. Tariff-free access could return as the negotiations continue.
Less successful have been attempts to persuade the environmental lobby that farmers are the only effective custodians of the countryside. The CAP is one of the battlegrounds, and NGOs – non government organisation pressure groups – are ramping up demands for changes to the policy. Over the CAP a hundred environmental and social NGOs came together to claim the policy needs to move away from supporting farmers. They want the CAP to focus on issues such as human health, the environment, farm workers, animal welfare and even help for countries outside the EU.
This is not going to happen, but it’s a sign of the pressure the Commission faces, and it’s pressure it and farmers need to resist. Between now and June Brussels needs to remember that the excessive influence groups like these enjoy is one of the reasons why many farmers are being tempted to vote for Brexit, believing it’s easier to take on home-based than Europe-wide opposition.