Our rural affairs writer John Sheard takes a sceptical look at plans announced yesterday (July 10) to reform Europe's notorious Common Agricultural Policy
IT TOOK an acronym of just three letters to put most Britons off the idea of the European Union: CAP, the notorious farm support policy dreamed up by French politicians to take money of rich North European industrial nations and give it to their own peasant farmers.
This was the policy that put an estimated £10 a week onto the average British family's tax bill, gave us the most expensive food in the world, and created the obscenity of beef mountains and olive oil lakes stored at huge expense whilst millions in Africa and Asia were starving.
On Wednesday, after years of bitter in-fighting - with Britain in the lead - the EU's Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler announced a massive reform programme aimed at ending the system of subsidising food over-production and switching the billions involved to environmental and economic regeneration schemes in rural areas.
Now this is an idea which we at Daelnet have supported for a decade or more. We ought to be jumping up and down with glee. Trouble is, read the fine print on what is already - in typical Euro-style - an excruciatingly complex document and you will see the weasel words "for consultation only."
Should the proposals be accepted, they would not come into force until January 2004 - a blink of an eyelid in Euro-negotiation terms.
And within minutes of the announcements, French farmers were promising to blow the whole idea out of the water - because it would stop them continuing to milk the rest of industrialised Europe.
In this, allies in Mediterranean Europe - and Ireland - will support them and unless Germany comes down on the side of reform, the chances of the changes ever being pushed through are virtually nil. And when it comes to agriculture, Germany is virtually a peasant nature too.
Today, NFU President Ben Gill will meet Herr Fischler to press his view that many of the proposals are acceptable "in principle" but, for British agriculture, "modularity" must be maintained: i.e., making sure that efficient farmers continue get huge subsidy payments which, despite a disastrous decade on Britain's land, still keeps the "barley barons" of East Anglia very rich indeed.
In other words, we too are opposing some of the most fundamental changes on the table - ones which would bring great comfort, even survival, for hill farmers in the Yorkshire Dales.
There is only one real bit of good news on the horizon: the proposed enlargement of the EU to include several mainly agrarian states from Eastern Europe like Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.
If they do come in - and the French are showing signs of opposing it - the present CAP would simply bankrupt the whole of Europe, rich and poor alike. So things must change. Or must they? As the French say, "La plus ca change..."
Please don't hold your breath...